Uncas, Miantonomo, and Historical Memory

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Uncas, Miantonomo,  and Historical Memory

by Robert A. Geake

The name of Uncas in the Narragansett language holds the meanings of “circler” and “fox”, and certainly a more appropriate name could not have been given to the crafty and cunning Mohegan Sachem.

Within the histories written in the centuries following his extraordinary life, the person behind the posturing of haughty warrior, self-promoter, manipulator of English concerns, and protector of his people; has remained as elusive as ever.

As with other Native American Sachems of Southern New England who came of age and responsibility during the early Colonial period, Uncas would witness the lives of his people become changed forever with the influx of Europeans and all that came with them. Practical goods seem to have held the most interest for these Native Americans. The New England Algonkians quickly adapted kettles, pots and pans to their everyday existence, as well as exchanging their skins and fur pelts for English style clothing.

Historian Michael Leroy Oberg writes that

“the technology and trade goods that the Europeans carried with them suggested to Indians that the newcomers were a powerful people, perhaps even otherworldly or magical.” The increase in trade also increased the distribution of wampum as an important commodity, and sudden competition among neighboring tribes.

“Strange it was, ”William Bradford of Plymouth would note  “to see the great alteration it made in a few years among the Indians themselves…it makes the Indians of these parts rich and powerful and also proud thereby…”

Uncas’ Father, the Sachem Owaneco, worked early with European traders to ensure a share of the growing trade for the Mohegan. A Dutch map from 1614 shows the tribes engaged with trade along the Thames River, including the “Mahican”. “Maximanes”, “Morhegans”, “Pequats”, and “Wamanoos”. Within a decade of this map being produced, the fur trade in the region was exporting and estimated 10,000 beaver skins each year.

With the advent of this economy and the resultant pressure upon tribes, relations became strained among the tribes of Southern New England. The Pequots and the Narragansett had it seemed, an inherited animosity toward each other. A tentative peace with the Wampanoag was also broken by Massasoit-Oussamequin’s alliance with the English settlement in Plymouth. This was the world into which Uncas grew as a young man.

Coming of age in the village of Monotesuck, near the banks of the Thames, he became conversant in the languages of the English and Dutch. Uncas was to claim lineage from the Pequot, Mohegan, and Narragansett Tribes. Although these claims have been challenged, such allegiances were long a part of his family history. Owaneco arranged a marriage for his son with the daughter of the Pequot sachem Tatobem, in order to secure an alliance between the tribes. The daughter named Momoho, was first promised to an older brother, but when he died before the marriage could take place, she was promised to Uncas.

When his Father died shortly after this marriage, Uncas inherited the role of Sachem but had to submit Mohegan authority to Tatobem, an episode that like Massasoit-Oussamequin with the Narragansett; was held in bitter distaste by these younger Sachems.

In the summer of 1633, a Dutch trader named Jacob Van Curler set up a trading post on the Connecticut River on land purchased from Tatobem. This had previously been a place where “all tribes might trade freely without any fear or danger”, yet the Dutchman set up two cannon and fortified his post which he named “Fort Good Hope”. This act stirred anger among some of those whom had traded and skirmishes broke out between these Indians and the Pequot at the fort. In retaliation, the Dutch killed Tatobem and 33 of his followers. Upon the Sachem’s death, his son Sassacus became his successor.

While his Father-in-law had been Sachem, Uncas had not challenged Peqout authority, but after his death, he “ removed to the interior and placed himself at the head of the Mohegan clans who occupied lands east of the Connecticut river, and west of the great Pequot River now known as the Thames. While Sassacus traded with the Dutch, Uncas developed alliances with the English.”[1]

      Uncas believed he held legitimate claim to the title of Sachem of the Pequot nation. To this end, he challenged Sassacus’ authority time and again. Historian William L. Stone would write that “Uncas raised the standard of revolt; but his power and influence, not being great at first, his rebellion was crushed, and he was ignominiously expelled his country by the haughty victor.” The defeated Uncas fled to Narragansett country in exile with his followers. Roger Williams wrote to John Winthrop  “This man is but a little Sachim, and hath not abou 40 or 50 Mohiganeucks…”.

Oberg writes that “The life of an exile among the Narragansetts suited Uncas poorly. He always returned to his homelands and ritually humiliated himself before Sassacus.”[2] The Mohegan were further weakened by the ravages of small pox in 1633/34 which killed many of Uncas’s followers, who were by this time, banished to the small village and fort his Father had established at Shantok.

The historian suggests that the Sachems tolerance of Uncas subordination may have been because he lacked the support among the Pequots to punish him severely, but there may have been other motives as well.  The Narragansett Sachem Miantonomo, told Williams that “Okace and his men had a hand in the death of all the English and fought against the Rivers mouth (at Qunnihticut) , and that when the Narragansett had allied with the Dutch against the Pequots, the Mohegans had “joined against us.”

Miantonomo claimed that Uncas had sheltered Pequot women and children while their men fought Captain Endicott’s English raiders, and confided that in one incident, the Mohegan Sachem had brought gifts to Canonicus and himself, “yet at the same time killed 2 of his women treacherously.”[3]

These early incidents, as recorded by Williams seem to be at the root of the Narragansett Sachem’s distrust and genuine dislike of the Mohegan that would culminate in their confrontation on the Great Plains.

Uncas’s relationship with the English was complex and based upon the political realities as the Mohegan saw them. Oberg explains that “With the Pequots under attack by the Narragansett  and the Dutch, and ensnared in an increasingly tangled web of controversy with the English, Uncas saw alliance with the newcomers as a means to increase both his own power and that of the Mohegans.”[4]

                                       Statue of John Mason from Connecticut History website

The English Captain John Mason, a veteran of British war with the Netherlands, and a man as  haughty and larger than life as Uncas, arrived in 1635 to build a settlement at what is now Dorchester. Mason had landed in New England five years before. In that time he had gained some military stature, having captured a pirate off the Massachusetts coast in 1632, and helping to redesign fortifications at Boston harbor.

The Mohegan sachem soon “fell into an intimate acquaintance”  with the Englishman that was to last for thirty five years. Uncas also met John Brewster, son of the Plymouth founder, who had long meandered upriver to trade with the Indians and seek out prospects for the Colony. In June of 1636, Brewster sent a Native American interpreter to Shantok to interview Uncas concerning “the proceedings of the Pequots, as also there present abode”.

Brewster’s courier returned with startling news. Uncas had informed him that Sassacus and a confederation of other Sachems were actively plotting against the English.

A plan to destroy Plymouth’s trading ship had only been foiled when the ship had fled the advancing canoes “under sayle with a fayre wind”. The Sachem had also told the courier that Sassacus with his brother and others, had been responsible for the death of the Englishman Stone, two years before, and that since then, the Pequots had heard rumors that the English would “shortly come against them”, and predicted that “out of desperate madnesse”, the Pequots would “shortly…sett both upon Indians, and English, jointly.”[5]

The news that Uncas sent to Brewster had the desired effect. Brewster believed the Mohegan to be “faithful to the English” and quickly passed the dire warning along to John Winthrop Jr. who had settled Saybrook. While the message generated talk up and down the river, it was not until the news reached Boston, that a definitive response was formed, and a summons was immediately dispatched to Sassacus. When the Pequot delegation arrived, they found themselves confronted by Winthrop, and the issue of justice for the murder of Stone, was raised again. Winslow told them that

“if they shall not give…satisfaction…or shall be found guilty of any of the sayd murders, and will not deliver the actours in them”, the Bay Colony had no choice but to determine itself “free from any league or peace with them, and shall revenge the blood of our countrimen as occasion shall serve”.

In the months that followed, Uncas took every opportunity to urge war upon the Pequot nation. As Native American tribes grew disenchanted with the European idea of settlement, so these tensions erupted in sporadic episodes of violence. The murders of John Stone, and the John Oldham, Brewster’s brother in law, were examples of these.

While the Pequot had been widely implicated in Stone’s death two years earlier, they were not the perpetrators of this crime. According to John Winthrop’s account,

“all the sachems of the Narragansett, except Canonicus and Miantunnomoh, were the contrivers of Mr. Oldham’s death”

This act was apparently committed to avenge Oldham’s trading with the Pequot. The Narragansett took responsibility for the crime, with Miantonomo reportedly ordering the execution of Anduah, the Block Island sachem for his role in planning the murder.

Oberg writes that by the time of that summer of 1636, tensions were such that

“Oldham’s death showed how quickly disputes between Indians could involve Englishmen, and his death complicated an already tense situation along the southern New England frontier.”[6]

Despite Miantonomo’s measure of justice, and a substantial amount of wampum sent to Governor John Winthrop, in August, the Massachusetts Bay Authority sent a force of one hundred soldiers under Captain John Endicott to “put to death the men of Block Island”. The Native American woman and children were to be spared harm, but collected and ferried from their homes.

When the Massachusetts force landed on the Island, they found the inhabitants had fled and satisfied themselves with burning the wigwams, killing the few dogs left wandering the encampment, and ruining the storage of corn the Islanders had prepared for winter. The militia next moved on to Saybrook where they were confronted by Lyon Gardner, the commander of the settlement’s fort, who made it clear that Endicott’s men were not welcome to come and stir up trouble then “take wing and flee away.”

                                           Early map from Connecticut History website

Undaunted, the men sailed East along the coast and soon found themselves taunted by the Pequots from shore. Negotiations were brief and to Endicott, unsatisfactory. On these breaking down, the English “gave fire to as many “ as they could, but the Pequots escaped, and they once again destroyed the wigwams and storages of corn.

As Commander Gardner had intoned, the surrounding settlements were not please with the actions of the Bay Colony. Neither Saybrook, or Connecticut, or Plymouth authorities wished to become embroiled in a war with Native American nations. Indeed, the Pequots took advantage of Endicott’s invasion too attempt to enlist the Narragansett, but Miantonomo’s message to John Winthrop, delivered in Boston that his people “had always loved the English and desired firm peace”, was a clear rebuke to the tribe’s old adversary. The caution the colonies showed soon proved to be warranted, as the Pequots retaliated with a siege of Saybrook that was to last into the new year.

Throughout this long “siege” and the subsequent attack on Wethersfield, Uncas urged the Colonial authorities to act against the Pequot nation. During the long winter, the Connecticut authorities had wavered, much to the Sachem’s displeasure. He had effectively isolated the Pequot nation from other Native American nations in the region. Even Miantonomo had presented a plan of attack on the Pequots to pass along to the Bay authorities, and a Massachusetts sachem named Cutshamakin had sailed along the coast with Endicott, and taken a Pequot scalp in the fight at the harbor. The Mohegan sachem vented his frustration on the minister Thomas Hooker who wrote with trepidation to John Winthrop that

“How the Pequoyts have made an inrode by a suddayne surprisall upon some of our bretheren at Watertowne, slaying weomen and children who were sent out carelessly without watch and guard, this bearer will tell you: Though we feel nether the tyme nor our strength fitt for such service, yet the Indians here our friends were so importunate with us to make warr presently that unless we had attempted some thing we had delivered our persons unto contrmpt of base feare and cowardice, and caused them to turne enemyes against us: Agaynst our mynds, being constrained by necessity, we have sent out a company, taking some Indian guides with us…”[7]

But after the attack on Wethersfield, Uncas was not the only one urging war. Another letter to Winthrop from John Higginson of Salem implored the Governor to put all other matters aside:

“In all these respects and many more I desire it may be considered whither the serious and speedie prosecution of this warre be not the greatest business New England hath.”

He warned Winthrop that

“Let not Boston Roxburie etc. thinke warre is far enough from them, for this seems to be an universal deluge creeping and encroaching on all the English in the land: The Multitudes of our enemies daily encrease, by the falling of Mohigoners,  Nepmets, (who live not many miles from the bay) Niantucuts at Narrohiganset and their malice is not to be questioned, their cruelty divers of ours have felt.”

Higginson reminded the Masachusetts Governor that

“…the eyes of all the Indians in the countrey are upon the English, to see what they will doe…”[8]

In this way, writes Oberg,

“Uncas pulled the English into his battle with Sassacus. He demanded that they act against his enemy. or face the consequence: a larger and more dangerous Indian opponent that did not fear the Puritans”.[9]

When the English did act, it was Captain Mason, the Mohegan sachem’s friend who devised the plan they would undertake. Advised by Uncas and Underhill, who contributed nineteen men to the force of ninety that Mason had mustered, the militia sailed from Saybrook with seventy Mohegans on May 19th,  past the entrance of the Thames River to Narragansett Bay, where they set anchor. Bad weather prevented their landing at Miantonomo’s village for several days, and when they did meet with the sachem, he was noncommittal about joining an assault, warning that the Pequot had “very great Captains and Men skilful in War”, but permitted the Englishman to lead his force through Narragansett Country toward the Pequot encampment.

On May 24th however, a number of Narragansett men came to Mason and joined his force. The warriors professed to the English Captain “how galliantly they would demean themselves, and how many men they would kill,”

Once they were at the Pawcatuck River, some Narragansett refused to cross into Pequot territory. Those who stayed, continued the march through the “extreme heat” with little provisions to aussage their exhaustion. Uncas and Endicott parleyed with Mason and determined to attack a closer Pequot settlement near Mystic where there were far more women and children than the warriors at Weinshauks.

Uncas had told Mason that he could not trust the Narragansett warriors to stand and fight, telling the Captain “they will all leave you…but as for myself,…I will never leave you”. The Mohegan led the militia through the darkness to the sleeping encampment. Mason handed out yellow headbands to the Mohegan warriors so the English could identify them in battle. He had none for the remaining  Narragansett who fell to the rear as the English surrounded the palisade fort.

                                                 Early print of the battle at Mistik

In the ensuing assault, Mason and Underhill set fire to the wigwams, fearing that Pequot reinforcements would arrive before they finished the battle. In the process they slaughtered many of the women and children who became entrapped in the flaming fortress. The Narragansett called out to Underhill as the attack continued, crying that it was too much, that too many were being killed. Those who escaped the fire were

“slaine with the sword, some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatche, and very few escaped. While Mason and the Mohegans rejoiced at their swift victory, the Narragansett returned to Miantonomo, some of them wounded by the English who mistook them for Pequots in the melee, and told the sachem of the brutality of the English way of war.

Native warfare had long held a tradition of limited engagement for a specific purpose – to avenge a death or wrong committed by one tribe against another. The avenging action was swift and inflicted minor casualties. Women and children were spared from the conflict, villages left unrazed. For these reasons, Underhill and others thought that

“Indian warfare hardly deserved the name of fighting”.

Uncas had led the English to the scene of battle, and now he led them through the wilderness back to the safety of their boats, his warriors skirmishing with bands of re-grouped Pequots who shadowed them to the harbor. Once the wounded were placed on boats, the Mohegan led Mason another twenty miles through the Niantic country to Saybrook.

After the massacre at Mistick, the Pequots became, in Roger Williams words, “a prey to all Indians.”  The Montauks from Long Island agreed to aid Lyon Gardner in gathering any fugitives in exchange for trade in Saybrook, and Sequassen, a sachem from the Connecticut River valley sent his warriors almost daily to Hartford and Windsor to “bring in [Pequot] heads to the English.”

Nearly a month after the assault, the Massachusetts Bay Authorities sent another force to Saybrook, where it met with Uncas and a sizeable body of Mohegans. They chased the remaining bands of Pequots westward, killing those who fell behind, or who were found digging for clams in hunger along the shore. The eighty or so remaining warriors made a stand in a swamp outside of Quinninpiac. A first attack by the English was beaten back.

Commander Israel Stoughton ordered the swamp to be surrounded, and sent in a Native American messenger with an offer to spare those Pequots that surrendered. As night fell, women and children emerged from the thickets, leaving their men to fight one last battle.

Through the night, gunfire was exchanged. At dawn, a handful of Pequot warriors attempted to escape and were beaten back, then the English marched headlong into the swamp firing their muskets “loaded with Ten or Twelve Pistol bullets at a time, within a few yards of them” The resultant slaughter left the dead warriors “in heaps“ among the victorious English and Mohegan allies.

The effective annihilation of the Pequot nation propelled Uncas to a prestige among both English and Native American leaders that he may have desired, but whose extent he could never have anticipated. In the aftermath of the war, the Connecticut authorities sent a small force to align with Uncas  “to maynteine our right that God by Conquest hath given to us”[10] . The Massachusetts Bay Colony took the view that the settlers at Saybrook had “rushed them selves into a warr with the heathen”, and would have lost everything

“had not we [the Massachusetts Authority] reskued them at so many hundred charges” .

The Colonies and Native Americans were also divided on what to do with the remaining Pequots who had been captured, the women and children who had been gathered or surrendered at Quinnipiac.

The Narragansett had expressed to John Winthrop through Roger Williams that the Governor should look “toward mercy and to give them their lives”, that they “be used kindly, have houses and goods and fields given them.”  Uncas told Richard Davenport that he wished “to make women of all the Pecotts, except the sachems and captains and murtherers”[11] He pledged to kill anyone found who had fought the English or his own people. Many of these remaining Pequots  were adopted into newly formed Mohegan

communities. As Oberg writes:

“Uncas created a powerful chiefdom that included the surviving Pequots and their former tributaries, Indian villagers in southern and eastern Connecticut, in the Connecticut River Valley, and on Long Island.”

In the year that followed the war, the Mohegan sachem would cement his claims to tributaries and lands by marrying a widow of the sachem Tatobem,  and at least six other prominent women among the people now subject to his authority.  In a show of his new power, Uncas even offered the Pequot women who were captives of John Winthrop Sr. protection if they would escape the Bay Colony and come to Shantock.

Winthrop would eventually exert his authority upon the Mohegan, and Uncas would learn to compromise with English authority, but he maintained Mohegan interests throughout, and displayed a cunningness whose reputation would only add to the myth of the man, in the later remembrances, and biographies of his life.

One of the most prominent stories that has survived into present time concerns the battle at the Great Plains between Uncas and Miantonomo that resulted in the latter’s capture and death. As might be expected, Mohegan lore, and Narragansett oral history differ in the events leading up to the battle and after. The English versions of events differ also, and in curious and unusual ways. These provide us an opportunity to examine the life of an historical story, and how it is perceived in memory by succeeding generations of both historians, and the public.

Events leading up to this confrontation are indisputable. Though the Mohegan and Narragansett had signed a treaty at the behest of Massachusetts Authorities to keep peaceful relations, disagreements concerning prisoners and land use rights continued to simmer. It may be remembered that the Narragansett had plead for those innocent captives of the Pequot nation to be treated fairly. The fate of those who did not assimilate into Mohegan or other tribes was decidedly unfair. William L. Stone noted that of those who surrendered at the swamp near Quinnipiac, “the female prisoners and children were divided among the soldiers, and numbers of them were sent to the West Indies and sold as slaves.[12]

Tensions between the English and Narragansett over the treatment of the surviving Pequots, exacerbated other disputes as well. The Narragansett felt that they were denied use of land promised to them by Colonial authorities after the war, and in addition, were forced to pay tribute for the Pequots they had taken as slaves into the tribe. Until the Mohegans attack on Sequassen’s village, Roger Williams had tempered the Sachems impatience, with missives to Winthrop and assurances that the English would seriously weigh their concerns.

John Winthrop’s account of the confrontation on the Great Plains comes from his

Journal, in which he wrote on August 6, 1643:

“We received news of a great defeat given the Narragansetts by Onkas…”

Winthrop recounts the attack by Uncas upon Sequasson that “slew divers of his men,and burnt his wigwams” that provoked the Narragansett, and how in answer,

“Miantunnomoh, being his kinsman, took offence against Onkus, and went with near 1000 men and set upon Onkas before he could provide for defence…But it pleased God to give Onkus the victory, after he had killed about 30 Narragansett and wounded many more, and among these two of Canonicus’ sons and a brother of Miantunnomoh”

Winthrop also mentions in the Journal  that  Miantonomo fled, wearing a coat of mail, and that

“he was easily overtaken, which two of his captains perceiving, they laid hold on him and carried him to Uncas, hoping thereby to procure their own pardon.” These two Narragansett who had betrayed their Sachem were immediately slain by Uncas, and Miantonomo was taken prisoner. Winthrop then recounts the imprisonment of the Narragansett sachem,

“they kept him under guard, but used him very courteously” and a troublesome letter from Samuel Gorton, demanding the release of his friend and threatening English intervention, the response by Uncas to take the matter to Hartford, and then Boston where the Commissioners of the United Colonies found themselves in a quagmire:

“that it would not be safe to set him at liberty, neither had we sufficient ground for us to put him to death. In this difficulty we called in five of the most judicious elders (it being the time of the general assembly of elders,) and proposing the case to them, they all agreed that he ought to be put to death” (Winthrop’s Journal Vol. II p134-136)

Another early mention of the conflict by William Bradford, demonstrates the extent to which the loyalty and words of Uncas were regarded by the English after the Peqout uprising:

“The Narragansetts, after the subduing of the Pequots, thought to have ruled over all the Indians about them. But the English, especially those of Connecticut, holding correspondency and friendship with Uncas…were engaged to support him in his just liberties and were contented that such of the surviving Pequots as had submitted to him should remain with him and quietly under his protection. This did much increase his power and augment his greatness, which the Narragansetts could not endure to see.”[13]

Bradford repeats some of the falsities that Uncas was spreading between the Bay Colony and Connecticut at the time, mainly that Miantonomo was behind a plot to assassinate the Mohegan, through various means: poisoning, or “to knock him on the head in his house or secretly shoot him…”

Uncas had complained to Connecticut Authorities that his entourage of canoes had come under arrow fire more than once in his travels. He had taken an arrow in the arm at Shantok, in an attempted assassination; and the Pequot suspected had fled to the Narragansett and received protection.

The Plymouth Governor wrote in his secondhand account that

“none of these taking effect, he [Miantonomo] made open war upon him [Uncas] (though it was against the covenants both between the English and them, as also between themselves and a plain breech of the same}. He came suddenly upon him with 900 or 1000 men, never denouncing any war before. The other’s power at the present was not above half so many, but it pleased God to give Uncas the victory and he slew many of his men and wounded many more, but the chief of all was, he took Miantonomo prisoner.”[14]

William Bradford’s account was written, like many memoirs of those days, years after the described events took place. Still, this is one of the earliest written accounts of this event which would grow in historical memory . Bradford’s telling is also tempered by his careful noting of the proceedings of perceived justice that followed the sachem’s capture:

“The Commissioners weighed the cause and passages as they were clearly represented and sufficiently evidenced betwixt Uncas and Miantonomo, and the things being duly considered, the Commissioners apparently saw that Uncas could not be safe while Miantonomo lived…Wheras they thought he [Uncas] might justly put such a false and bloodthirsty enemy to death; but in his own jurisdiction, not in the English plantations.”

Indeed, in his summation, Bradford seems unaware of the marriages made by Uncas that contributed greatly to his esteem through land holdings in the eyes  (especially), of the Connecticut authorities. He is also unaware of the prodigious correspondence of Roger Williams during this period, promoting the peaceful intentions of his friend, the Narragansett sachem, and of his reluctance to draw the English into what Miantonomo saw as an “Indian affaire”.

“…if I mistake not I observe in Miantunnomu some sparkes of true Friendshipp. could it be deeply imprinted into him that the English never intended to despoile him of the Countrey I probably conjecture his friendship would appeare in attending of us with 500 men (in case) nagainst any forreigne Enemie.”[15]

Williams also told the Bay Colony Governor that ”concerning Miantunnumu I have not heard as yet of ant unfaithfulness toward us…”

Despite Uncas’ rise in power, the Narragansett exhibited assured self-confidence  in the greatness of the Narragansett nation compared to Uncas’ Mohegan confederacy. Miantonomo told Williams that Uncas and his followers were

“but … a twig….while we are as a great tree.”

If Williams’ letters made any impact on John Winthrop, he did not share this with Bradford, indeed, he had written to the Plymouth leader that

“we conceive that you looke at the pequents, and all other Indeans as a commonnenimie…”

Bradford also makes no mention of the provocative attacks by Uncas and the English on encampments along the Pawcatuck River in the summer of 1639 that were filled with Pequot refugees who had long been tributaries of the Niantic sachem, Ninigret. This attack, stirred the embers of the long simmering hatred for the Mohegan once again, and enflamed the Niantic and Narragansett, along with other tribes who were becoming wary of Uncas’ influence on the English.

Roger Williams wrote to Winthrop during these unsettling times:

“ I have dealt with Caunounicus and Miantunnomu to desert the Nayantaquits in this business. They answer they would if they had shed the bloud of the English, but as they are bretheren so they never hurt the English…Instead they say that the English partialitie to all the Pequots at Monhiggan is so great and the Consequences so grevious upon the abuse of the English love, that all their arguments returne back (which they use to the Nayantaquit Sachems) as arrows from a stone wall…”[16]

In these early accounts and letters, only John Winthrop Sr., seems,with these epistles from Williams, to have acknowledged the haughtiness of Uncas in a continued pattern of harassing and provoking the Narragansett which ultimately led to the conflict.

The first “full” account of the battle on Great Plains would come in the pages of the Rev. Benjamin Trumbull’s History of Connecticut (1797). Rev. Trumbull penned many sermons and lectures, and by 1767, he had also completed a manuscript entitled A Compendium of the Indian Wars in New England, more particularly, the Colony of Connecticut have been Concerned and Active in.”

While this work remains in his papers, it was never published, and his efforts went into the larger work, which was enhanced by correspondence with many of the State’s local historians. In his account, Benjamin Trumbull uses all sources known to him and weaves them into the fabric of his narrative; creating an interesting tableau of the accumulated historical record to date.

                                    topographical map of Norwich and the “Sachem’s Plain”

Trumbull repeats Bradford’s assertion that Miantonomo marched upon Uncas without provocation, or informing the English. The Mohegan spies sent word back to Uncas at Shantok, that Narragansetts had entered Mohegan territory, and he set out to meet the Narragansett sachem.

This account presents for the first time, mention of a strategy of Uncas’ making: to offer a friendly parley with Miantonomo, and challenge him to fight man to man, and settle their long dispute. While most historians have framed the outrage of the Narragansett sachem to the power that the English enabled the Mohegan to gather, Uncas knew more than anyone that Miantonomo valued the pride of his people more than his own. He would not leave warriors to stand and deprive them of the pride they garnered from battle with such an enemy.

That certainty gave Uncas the element of surprise, for his ruse worked, and the Narragansett sachem came to meet him, and as expected, refused the Mohegan’s offer:

“…upon which Uncas falling instantly to the ground his men discharged a shower of arrows upon the Narragansetts, and without a moment’s interval, rushed upon them in the most furious manner, with a hideous yell, put them to flight.”

The Mohegan warriors chased the Narragansett “like a doe by the huntsman”, and

“-among others Miantonom was exceedingly pressed. Some of the most forward of Uncas’ bravest men, who were most light of foot, coming up with him, twitched him back, impeding his flight, and passed him, that Uncas might take him Uncas was a stout man, and rushing forward, like a lion greedy of his prey, seized him by his shoulder.”

In this account, the battle on the Great Plains was hardly a battle, but an embarrassing rout of the Narragansett.  In the matter of Miantonomo’s death, Trumball details the captured sachem being taken to Shantok, and then to Hartford to await the word of the Commission of the United Colonies, where

“The whole affair of Uncas and Miantonimoh was laid before the Commissioners, and the facts already related, were, in their opinion, fully proved…” Those facts, of course were Uncas’ long standing allegations that could hardly be proven, given the Mohegan’s many adversaries. The Commission declared that the Mohegan sachem “could not be safe, while Miantonomoh lived, …his life would be continually in danger”, and that Uncas  “might justly put such a false and blood-thirsty enemy to death.”

Uncas received his prisoner, and “marched with him to the spot where he had been taken. At the instant they arrived on the ground, one of Uncas’ men, who marched behind Miantonomoh, split his head with a hatchet, killing him with a single stroke”.

The murder of Miantonomo. From Cassell’s History of the United States.

The Reverend concludes this episode with a grisly and spectacular scene certain to send a chill into the reader:

“Uncas cut out a large piece of his shoulder which he devoured in savage triumph! He said  “it was the sweetest meat he ever ate; it made his heart strong!”[17]

This description of the battle is reprinted nearly verbatim by Henry Trumball in his ambitious History of the Discovery of America… (1814), as well as in a later edition of 1832, and then again in the 1846 edition of Trumbull’s History of the Indian Wars.  But the publisher adds a curious addition to the tale, that as the Narragansett  fled,

“many of them to escape…plunged into a river from rocks of near sixty feet in height”.

Henry Trumball was a Providence printer and publisher. Like many ambitious publishers, he borrowed heavily from others books and accounts to publish his own works, even if some accounts were embellished for dramatic effect, or as some suspect, created by the publisher himself. A modern assessment of Trumbull tells us that

“Trumbull’s many works touched every part of the scale from wartime adventure to shipwrecks and castaway cannibalism, never content with the everyday”[18]

Aside from his popular Indian Wars, Trumball penned and published The Life of Israel Potter, and Robert the Hermit among other titles, and gained a reputation as a “talented and thorough going rogue”.

In this instance, it is likely that Trumball had simply added another bit of local lore, which, as we shall see, continues to survive in present day historical memory.

This story of the battle at Great Plains was then rewritten, in a more delicate tone by Miss Frances M. Caulkins in her History of Norwich, and she references the source of the tale, for the first time, as being from a letter written by the Rev. Richard Hyde of Norwich to the Rev. Trumbull in October of 1769.

The Reverend Hyde was well known for his discourse among the Mohegans, and it is clear that he was by then, one hundred and twenty six years after the event, passing along what had become a legend in the tribe’s oral history.[19] Similar accounts of battles related through oral history were recorded by Frank Speck at the turn of the twentieth century, and by William Simmons among the Narragansett late in that century.

Hyde was sixty two when he wrote the Mohegan account to Trumbull, and he gave no indication of when he had heard the tale, only that it was “communicated to me from some of the ancient Fathers of this town, who were Contemporaries of Uncas…”

The letter itself was printed in Daniel Coit Gilman’s A Historical Discourse (1859) along with a letter from Miss Caulkin, concerning the long dispute over the location of “Sachem Plains” and Miantonomo’s burial there.

The story comes to its most detailed and elaborate telling in the pages of John S. De Forest’s  History of the Indians of Connecticut (1851) . The account in these pages provides greater detail to the aftermath of Miantonono’s capture, including the giving of wampum to Uncas, which the Narragansett had long claimed was ransom for their sachem’s life.

“It would appear…that a truce was opened between the tribes, which continued as long as the fate of Miantonomo remained in suspense. The Narragansetts sent their sachem several packages of wampum during his captivity, which he gave away, some to Uncas, some to Uncas’ wife, and some to his principal councilors. He made these presents…partly by way of thanks for his courteous treatment, and partly to persuade Uncas to put him into the hands of the English and refer his fate to their decision.”[20]

The historian further asserts that when Miantonomo was brought to Hartford, he  “begged earnestly that he might be kept there in the custody of the English magistrates. He doubtless expected that the English would preserve his life…”

More recently, the historians Neal Salisbury and Michael Leroy Oberg have speculated that the Narragansett sachem attempted  to broker a deal with the Mohegan. Miantonomo told Uncas of the recent Musee mischief against the Dutch, and hinted that it was but a part of a larger uprising. Uncas and the Mohegans could join the insurgency, and to cement the alliance,

“Miantonomo would marry one of Uncas’ daughters…Meanwhile, Miantonomo’s younger brother, Pessicus, would marry the daughter of the powerful Pakonoket sachem Massasoit. If consummated, the alliance would have brought together Indians from the Hudson River eastward to the Massachusetts Bay in a powerful union against the English and the Dutch.”

A first hand account written by John Haynes to John Winthrop however, places the issue of ransom, and the courage of the Narragansett sachem in a different light:

“That the express, that Onkas should take wampham of the Narragansetts for Myantonimo’s ransom (which I have understood also from Mr. Eaton,) I cannot but concur with you, if it really appears so, equity and justice call for no less; but this I must needs say, that this very thing was cast abroad by some Indians of the Narragansett party…both myself and Captain Mason strictly examined Onkus concerning the matter, acquainting him with what we had heard. He utterly denied, that he had taken any wampham or any other thing upon any such terms. He confessed, indeed, he had wampham and other things given him and his brother freely; and he as freely promised to bring him to the English…and this I also know…that the same day that Myantonimo was delivered into our hands and imprisoned…Onkas desired him to speak before us all; and this Myantonimo did utter and confess that the Mohegan sachems had dealt nobly with him in sparing his life, when they took him, and performing their promise in bringing him to the English, (a thing the like he never heard of, that so great a sachem should be so dealt with) although he himself pressed it upon them, again and again, (as they all could witness) to slay him…”[21]

Clearly Miantonomo had expected to die within the tenants of “Indian Justice”, as he and Uncas understood those inherent laws. There is no mention of him begging for his life, only a grudging answer that the Mohegans had treated him well during this humiliation.

William Cullen Bryant would write that being taken prisoner

“no doubt overwhelmed him, for he begged his enemies repeatedly to take his life, taunting them, perhaps, after the Indian fashion, with his own deeds of prowess in the past…”[22]

It is also improbable, given this testimony from Hartford and the apparent demeanor of Miantonomo at these proceedings that any such union was discussed, or that either Sachem, given their history, would have been open to such a proposal. Indeed, the sources used that mention a speculative “deal” discussed, clearly express what the English feared might happen, should Miantonomo be allowed to live.

Uncas apparently had no regrets of taking “gifts” from the Narragansett during their sachem’s imprisonment, as in his mind, he had not expressed any promises in return. He likely expected the Hartford authorities to wash their hands of the matter. In fact, he had made an agreement with authorities in 1638 to seek “advice from the English” should he capture the sachemand place him on trial for “sundry treacherous attempts on his life.”

Surely compliance with that treaty made it easier for the Massachusetts Authorities to place Miantonomo back in Mohegan hands.

Salisbury indicates in the final pages of his work, that the English, more than Uncas, had reason to see that the :”great sachem” was executed, and thus made sure that

“…several Englishmen would accompany the party to see that the execution was actually carried out. No Indian, not even Uncas, could be trusted alone with the remarkable leader who was urging Indians tp bury their present differences in order to recover the autonomy, unity,  and abundance of the pre-European past.”

          Miantonomo’s grave, Norwich, Conn. Photo by author.

John Winthrop was to write after the death of Miantonomo that Uncas had “slew an enemy, but not the enmity against him”

Indeed, as Oberg observes in his biography,

“Uncas’ close alliance with Connecticut and the Commissioners of the United Colonies allowed him to survive the Narragansett raids of 1644 and 1645” when the tribe’s effort to exact revenge was at its most fervent.

The enmity, over this affair,  would also flow from the pens of later historians of the Colonial period.

Daniel Gookin, the missionary who had written admiring words about the Narragansett, claimed that Uncas was “ a wicked, willful man, a drunkard and otherwise very vitious.”

De Forest, who had provided the most extent account of the battle and its aftermath, echoed the missionary’s missive, and more:

“His nature was selfish, jealous, and tyrannical; his ambition was grasping, and unrelieved by a single trait of magnanimity.”

But the Mohegan sachem also had his defenders. The lore of Uncas as “the great Indian benefactor” became strongest in the 19th century, beginning with the dedication of the Uncas Memorial, and with less fanfare, a modest monument to Miantonomo, that was placed upon the remains of a once great heap of stones.

In the address given at the Memorial’s dedication, William L. Stone praised Uncas as

“brave and fearless, the white man’s friend.” Indeed, the Sachem had sold the land on

which Norwich was raised in 1659 and two hundred some odd years later, the town’s pre-eminent historian, acknowledged that despite his faults, Uncas was to be admired for his “persevering activity in securing the independence of his tribe.”

This tale from history, of the mythical struggle between Uncas and Miantonomo faded in historical  texts as the narrative expanded and later events acquired more prominence in the evolving American story.

James Truslow Adams in his three volume History of New England (1927), makes scarce mention of the battle, except that it was sanctioned by Massachusetts Authorities, and that “Miantonomo was taken prisoner through treachery”. [23]

Adams infers that the animosity of the Puritan judges in determining the sachem’s fate, may have been driven more by Miantonomo’s friendships with Samuel Gorton and Roger Williams, than his rivalry with Uncas, though these ”most judicious elders” had found the Narragansett to be “of a turbulent and proud spirit”.

The historian also decries the English failure to enact real justice according to their own written treaties.

“There had been no pretence of trial, and neither the accused nor any witnesses had been summoned. Nor did the English execute the sentence which duty was entrusted to Uncas”, and leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the assassination.

“Aside from the injustice of the course pursued, it is difficult to think of one more certain to turn the “proud and turbulent” spirits of the slain man’s thousand followers permanently against the English settlers.”[24]

In the years after Miantonomo’s death, these feelings simmered and occasionally flared with the stirrings of one dispute or another. On the verge of Metacom’s War, with the English desperate to dissuade  Narragansett involvement, the issue of punishment of Uncas, now an elderly man, for his role in the death of Miantonomo, was still being raised as a pretence to any negotiation with the English.

During this conflict, which the Narragansett had been dragged into by the English declaration of war upon them, the death of their great sachem reverberated once more, with the capture and death of Nannuntennew, the son of Miantonomo, more commonly called Canonchet, in April of 1676. A contemporary account, included by Samuel Drake in his Old Indian Chronicles (1867) tells us that the younger Sachem’s “Carriage was strangely proud and lofty after he was taken.” The English brought their prisoner to New London where he was interrogated as to

“…why he did foment that War, which would certainly be the Destruction of him and all the Heathen Indians in the Country &c.? He would make no other Reply…but this;- That he was born a Prince, and if Princes came to speak with him he would answer, but none present being such, he thought himself obliged in Honor to hold his Tongue, and not hold Discourse with such persons, below his Birth and Quality.”[25]

Like his Father, Canonchet desired that he be put to death rather than confined, and in a further recall of his Father’s demise, requested that the act “might be done by young Unkus, (Oneco) that aided us; acknowledging him his fellow Prince…”

Canonchet promised the English captains that he had 2,000 men who would avenge his death. They placed the Narragansett under heavy guard and marched him to Stonington where most of the English soldiers, as well as the Mohegans, the Pequots, and the Niantics who had led Denison’s force out of New London, expressed growing their growing unease with holding such a valued prisoner for any length of time. There were fears also, that the English authorities, perhaps not wishing to commit the same desecration of justice again, might release Canonchet, and thus his vengeance upon the neighboring tribes friendly to the English.

Before any trial could be conducted, the sachem was murdered by his Native American enemies, no doubt releasing some drawn out vengeance upon the Narragansett; desecrating his body, and bringing the head triumphantly to Hartford.

Uncas would, in the end, outlive all his enemies. Thus by longevity alone, and his familiarity with the English Colonial governments, would a kind of mythical status already be given the sachem. His name would be immortalized by the popular author James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans, though the “noble savage” the novelist portrayed had little of the characteristics his name sake thrived in holding.

In the recent historical texts, one writer has acknowledged, “Uncas is viewed widely as a self –serving collaborator,” citing Francis Jennings and John Sainsbury among others who have continued the thread of enmity toward Uncas in their own narratives. In his essay Uncas and Political Contact, Eric S. Johnson makes the point that

“To the Mohegans, Uncas is a hero. Their view is best understood in the light of Native political organization. Uncas, like all sachems, was a servant of his people. He cooperated with the English for the most part on his own terms, in the interests of the Mohegan community, and with its consent and support. With Uncas’ guidance, the Mohegan went from a small, subordinate community to a dominant regional power within a span of twenty years.”[26]

Unsurprisingly, Oberg in his biography takes a similarly pragmatic view of the Native American leader:

“Uncas constructed the Mohegans out of the wreckage spawned by epidemic disease and warfare against the Pequots, He assembled a powerful Native American chiefdom that remained a significant power in southern New England for much of the seventeenth century. He lived a long life as Mohegan Sachem, dying a peaceful death without converting to Christianity and abandoning his people’s customary beliefs. “ Though he shared the landscape of New England with powerful figures such as the Winthrops, and Bradford, among others, “He played as large a role in the history of this part of Anglo-America, a region shaped by its English settlers and Indian natives, as any other individual.”[27]

That the Mohegan community remains, and is thriving today due to lucrative casino profits and land holdings, may largely be responsible for keeping the story of Uncas alive in written and oral history.

But let us return to this mythical battle, and its present place in historical memory.

The site of Miantonomo’s grave on a small, rocky hillside is a desolate place, even today, surrounded by aging ranch houses. and a block away from a busy route. The remains of sachem plain are a bare field stretching out from the hillside to housing on one side and a stretch of brambles before the Yantic River.

The Yantic is a fast moving tributary, known for its rapids and quick water passages. In local lore, as first reported by Henry Trumball, it was across this river that the Narragansetts tried to escape the battle. Therein however, lies the uncertainty of the tale and the location of the Great Plains.

Local myth has placed the site of “Indian Leap” and those “rocks near sixty feat in height” as that of Yantic Falls, some two miles upriver from the hillside bearing Miantonomo’s grave, historically, the place where he was captured, and then returned to be put to death.

                                   “Indian Leap” at Yantic Falls. Photo by CLK Hatcher

With modern websites the story is repeated of the great battle and the sachem’s capture. On the town of Bolton Historical Society webpage, we find the following account of the scene on the Great Plains:

“It required a large open field east of what is now Norwich, where Uncas would let the great Narragansett sachem proudly array his overwhelming army of warriors. As it happens, it was also a place where the Mohegan bow and arrow would be effective on a very large scale. Miantinomo typically attacked with upward of 700 warriors. While Uncas sometimes maintained as many as 500 warriors, they were primarily defensive and spread thinly through Moheganeak. Uncas usually led between 100 and 200 elite warriors into battle. The Mohegan warriors were the best and brightest warriors from all the other nations because Uncas welcomed all nations, offered the greatest freedom, and upheld the Native American traditions and virtues.

The Mohegans were greatly outnumbered by the Narragansett but Uncas had a plan. Uncas would ask Miantonomo to fight him single handed in mortal combat in the open field. He told his warriors that when Miantonomo refused to fight him, Uncas would drop to the ground and that would be the signal for the Mohegan warriors to fire all their arrows at the Narragansett warriors.When Uncas fell to the ground as though he were dead, the Narragansett were startled and confused. Volleys of arrows struck the Narragansett but carefully missed the area where Uncas and Miantinomo were. The plan worked and most of the Narragansett warriors were finished off within a minute.

Then the Mohegans attacked in hand-to-hand combat. Miantonomo ran for his life but was run down by the Mohegan warrior Tantaquidgeon and brought back to Uncas. Then the mighty Mohegan sachem Uncas, with a great number of his bravest warriors and wisest and most trusted advisors (sagamores), brought Miantonomo through Bolton to the colonial commissioners in the Hartford colony.”[28]

                                Sign at “Indian Leap” retelling local lore. Photo by CLK Hatcher

Another website from an area historian, brings the lore of “Indian Leap” into the twenty first century:

“Rather than surrender, Miantonomo leapt across the gorge and managed to land on the other side, injuring his leg in the process. Others of his tribe attempted to leap the chasm but were unsuccessful and plunged to their death onto the rocks in the abyss below while others simply surrendered and became prisoners of the Mohegans.

When the pursuing Uncas arrived at the top of the gorge and saw his enemy hobbling away on the other side, he took a running start, flew over the rapids, and landed safely on the other side. It was an astounding leap that gave the area above the falls its future name and allowed Uncas to catch up to the injured Miantonomo who was then easily overcome and taken as prisoner.”[29]

Thus we see how local lore, over time and with propogation, becomes historical memory.

Joseph Campbell once famously said that “myth is a public dream”. and this has been borne out by the evolution of the story of the battle on the Great Plains. We will never know the actual acts and course of events that occurred on that day. We know only the outcome, and the effect it was to have on the later history.

Critics may argue that with the onset of modern websites and social media, it becomes easier to perpetuate public myths, but the truth is that local lore is woven into the fabric of American communities, and remains a strong thread among those libraries, societies, and individual citizens keeping historical interest alive whether in print, online, or in public commemorations. Local legend and lore contribute to the dialogue, and the ongoing debate over historical events. It is, as it has always been, how we define ourselves, as a community, a state, and a country.

Perhaps as historians, the best we may do is to include the lore in our narratives so as to explain how events may become embellished to embolden the acts of a person, or a people, especially those within the community itself.

May-June 2011

[1] History of Norwich, Connecticut: From its possesion by the Indians to the year 1866, by Frances Manwaring Caulkins

[2] Oberg, Michael Leroy “Uncas, First of the Mohegans”. p. 48

[3]  from letter written September 3, 1837 Winthrop Papers Vol 3. p. 496

[4] Oberg,M.L. “Uncas…” p. 50

[5] These details come from the letters written by Brewster to Winthrop Jr. on June 18, 1636.

[6] Oberg “Uncas…” p. 53

[7] Letter of Thomas Hooker to John Winthrop, May 1637. Winthrop Papers Vol 3, p. 407-408

[8] Letter of John Higginson to John Winthrop, May 1637. Winthrop Papers Vol. 3 pp 405-406

[9] Oberg, M.L. “Uncas…” p.57

[10] letter from Thomas Hooker to John Winthrop

[11] letter from Richard Davenport to John Winthrop, quoted in Oberg, p. 72

[12] A prelude to the Narragansett’s fate after King Philip’s War, this began a long Colonial tradition of dealing with unwanted, and unruly Native Americans.

[13] Bradford, William “Of Plymouth Plantation” p. 330

[14] Bradford, “Of Plymouth Plantations” p. 330-331

[15] Letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop May 15, 1637

[16] letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop May 21, 1640. Winthrop Papers, Vol. IV p. 269

[17] Trumbull, Benjamin “History of Connecticut” (1898 ed.) p114

[18] Checko and Kulcsar, “The Historical Guide to Gone Over, and The Brimfield Papers”

[19] See Simmons, William for a similar legend from the time of the Narragansett vengeance on the Mohegan in Spirit of the New England Tribes p. 96. VII

[20] DeForest, John S. “History of the Indians of Conn.” p. 192

[21] leyyer from John Haynes to John Winthrop November 17, 1643. Winthrop Papers Vol. IV pp 506- 507.

[22] from Scibners Popular History of the United States (1896)

[23] Adams, J.T. “The Founding of New England” p. 239

[24] Ibid. p. 241

[25] Drake, Samuel “Old Indian Chronicles” from A New and Farther Narrative of the State of New England (1676)

[26] Johnson, Eric S. from Uncas and Political Contact in Northeastern Indian Lives 1632-1816, Grumet, ed. p. 45

[27] Oberg, M.L. “Uncas, First of the Mohegans” p. 216

[28]  Debold, Hans from the Bolton Historical Society

[29] The Legend of Chief Uncas and Indian Leap. from Are We There Yet

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Whom Did Verrazzano visit?

Whom Did Verrazzano Visit?
By Robert A. Geake

In writing “Keepers Of The Bay”, I realized that one of the first points of inquiry would have to be early European encounters, including Verrazzano’s visit to Narragansett Bay in 1524. As many of you know, the evidence that the explorer even visited the new world, based upon a letter he wrote to France’s James I. was a point of contention among early scholars. Although the original has not been found, the explorer also sent copies of the letter to friends after his voyage. Three copies of this letter have been found. The first was published in 1556 by Ramusio in his collection of Voyages. This version of the letter was reprinted by Hakluyt in his Divers Voyages of 1582. Another copy of the letter was found in the Strozzi Library at Florence, and this version, containing a cosmographical appendix which did not appear in the Ramusio version, was printed in 1841 by the New York Historical Society with an introduction and notes by Dr. J.G. Cogswell. A third copy was found and printed in 1909.
Historian George Bancroft seems never to have been convinced of the authenticity of these letters, or at least their content. He withheld the explorers name from his History of the United States (1834-1874), contending that the explorer had never visited the Americas, and that the letters were simply written in France to enhance that nation and King’s prestige during this competitive age of exploration.
The contents of this much debated letter give an account of his journey to the coast of North America and exploration from 30° to 50° N. latitude. It has been described as the first post-Columbian description of the North Atlantic coast, and gives the first description of New York Bay and harbor and the present Hudson River.
From there Verrazzano sailed along Long Island Sound to Block Island and Newport, of which he makes mention. From this notebook of the voyage his brother Hieronimo drew in 1529 a map of the North Atlantic coast, which is now in the museum of the Propaganda at Rome, and testifies to the accuracy of Verrazzano’s observations along the coast as far as a point in present-day Maine, after which he returned to France, arriving at Dieppe in July, 1524. His brother’s map marks as “New France”.

Of his entrance to Narragansett Bay, Verrazzano wrote:
“We reached another land 15 leagues from the island, where we found an excellent harbor before entering it, we saw about boats full of people who came around the ship uttering various cries of wonderment. They did not come nearer than fifty paces but stopped to look at the structure of our ship, our persons, and our clothes; then all together they raised a loud cry which meant that they were joyful. We reassured them somewhat by imitating their gestures, and they came near enough for us to throw them a few little bells and mirrors and many trinkets, which they took and looked at, laughing, and then they confidently came on board ship. Among them were two kings, who were as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe. The first was about 40 years old, the other a young man of 24, and they were dressed thus: the older man had on his naked body a stag skin, skillfully worked like damask with various embroideries; the head was bare, the hair tied back with various bands, and around the neck hung a wide chain decorated with many different-colored stones. The young man was dressed in almost the same way. These people are the most beautiful and have the most civil customs that we have found on this voyage. They are taller than we are; they are a bronze color, some tending more toward whiteness, others to a tawny color; the face is clear-cut; the hair is long and black, and they take great pains to decorate it; the eyes are black and alert, and their manner is sweet and gentle, very like the manner of the ancients I shall not speak to Your Majesty of the other parts of the body, since they have all the proportions belonging to any well-built man.” (from the NYHS edition of Verrazzano’s Voyages)

Verrazzano lingered in Narragansett Bay for two weeks and in historian George Washington Greene’s retelling, the explorer “continued his observations upon the country and it’s inhabitants…he made several excursions up Narragansett Bay, and examined it with considerable attention. To those who have traced the windings of it’s lovely shores, his rapturous description will hardly seem exaggerated”.

But just who were these Native Americans that the explorer described?

When I was examining the early lives of the Narragansett, I was told emphatically by Preservation Officer John Brown that the “two kings” written of, by the explorer, were Tashtasik and Canonicus. Knowing that most modern histories claim that these descriptions depict the Wampanoag, I delved further into the known histories.

Greene, in his essay on the Life and Voyages of Verrazzano does not venture a guess as to the tribal identity of those “wondering savages” who sat in their canoes “gazing in admiration at the strange objects”. Greene does observe however, the detail with which the voyager described these

“native Rhode Islanders…Their complexion was remarkably clear; their features regular; their hair long and dressed with no ordinary degree of care; their eyes black and lively; their whole aspect pleasing…”

Based upon the description of these people, I encountered both similarities and some differences in other authors writings of the indigenous people of the area.

William Wood writes in New Englands Prospect (1634) that the “Narragansetts be at the present, the most numerous people in those parts, the most rich also…these men are the most curious minters of their wampeage…from hence they have most of their curious pendants and bracelets…although these be populous, yet I never heard that they were desirous to take in hand any martiall enterprise, or expose themselves to the uncertainty of warre: wherefore the Pequots call them women like men.”
( Part II, Chapter III, p. 61
John Josselyn, in the second part of his Account of Two Voyages  made to New England, writes a similar description of the Wampanoag with some curious delineations:
“Their Apparel before the English came amongst them, was the skins of wild beasts with the hair on them, Buskins of deer skin, or Moose drest and drawn with lines into several works, the lines being colored with yellow, blew, or red, Pumps too they have, made with rough skin without soles…under their belly they wear a square piece of leather and the like upon their posteriors, both fastened to a string tyed about them to hide their secrets, on their heads they ware nothing: But since they have had to do with the English they purchase of them a sort of cloth called trading cloth of which they make Mantles, Coats with short sleeves, and caps for their heads which the women use, but the men continue their old fashioned going bare-headed, excepting for some old men amongst them. They are very proud as appeareth by their setting themselves out with white and blew beads of their own making, and painting of their faces with the above mentioned colors…”

Compare this description with Nathaniel Philbrick’s modern retelling of the Pakonoket (Wampanoag)party which set out to greet the English in Plymouth:

“Massasoit stood on the hill, his face painted dark red, his entire head glistening with bear grease.Draped around his neck was a wide necklace made of white shell beads and a long knife suspended from a string. His men’s faces were also painted, ‘some black, some red, some yellow, and some white, some with crosses and other antic works’. Some of them had furs draped over their shoulders, others were naked. But every one of them possessed a stout bow and a quiver of arrows.”

It will be noticed that nowhere in his description does Giovanni di Verrazzano mention his Native American hosts as having their faces painted in such a manner. Indeed he describes at some length the differences in skin tone among them. While the description of the stag skin worn and the bare-headedness comes closest to the explorers observation, the face painting and bear grease mentioned by Philbrick brings another matter to the surface.

The Wampanoags, with encampments at Montop and Sawoms, were more a river people than people of the Bay. The Narrows river empties out into Narragansett Bay just above Montop (Mount Hope) and the Titcut (Taunton) River flows from the east, with Sowams located on a small inland cove that lies at a nearly equal distance between the two tributaries. Living on, and near the rivers; face paint and bear grease would have been everyday protection from flies and “muskeetoes” that those living by the breezes borne in from the Bay would not have had to contend with. Some scholars may contend that the time of year of Massasoit’s visit to Plymouth (in mid-March) would warrant such protection from the cold, and while that may be so, it does not explain Josselyn’s account of faces painted during fair weather.

Thomas Bicknell in his History of Barrington (1898), heads Chapter III with the title “Verrazzano visits the Wampanoags“, though without naming sources or any explanation for why he believes those were the people the explorer met, and wrote about in his letter.

In Samuel Eliot Morison’s book of the Great Explorers, we read another description of the explorer’s discovery of an island “about the bignesse of the Islande of Rhodes,…full of hilles, covered with trees.”

The maritime historian writes:

“ The natives who flocked around La Dauphine in canoes as she anchored a few miles outside Narragansett Bay on a hard, boulder strewn bottom were so friendly that Verrazzano (doubtless to the joy of his crew) decided to make an exception to his practice of mooring in the open. Piloted by an Indian, he sailed La Dauphine into the bay. Leaving the future Point Judith and Beaver Tail to port, he noted the little rocky islands now called The Dumplings as a suitable place for a coast-defense fort…The native pilots conducted La Dauphine to a completely sheltered anchorage, the present day Newport harbor, behind the highest point of Aquidneck. There he spent a fortnight palavering with the natives…

These Indians were the Wampanoag, whose domain extended over the eastern side of Narragansett Bay and southeastern Massachusetts. They had lately taken Aquidneck from the Narragansett and were apprehensive about a comeback. This in part accounts for their friendliness toward the Frenchman…”

Of course this description leads to more speculation. Would in fact, the Wampanoag have given the explorer such a prolonged and care-free welcome if they anticipated a counter attack by the Narragansett ? Or would the Narragansett, as the wealthiest nation in the region have dismissed the skirmish over an island never viewed as particularly valuable to them, and feted the visitor lavishly in anticipation of procuring an exclusive trading partner?
Indeed at the end of the description, Morrison adds a telling aside: “Verrazanno’s description of the Wampanoag corresponds closely to what Roger Williams later wrote about them…”

Could Samuel Eliot Morrison have been thinking of the Narragansett all along?

One possibility remains, that in encountering tribes nearby those who he first met, the explorer assumed the Native Americans were of the same tribe, though as we know there were several tribes that inhabited the region of the Bay.

May 2011

Greene, George W. “Life and Voyages of Verrazzano” North American Review Oct. 1837
Josselyn, John “Account of Two Voyages to New England”
Philbrick, Nathaniel “The Mayflower”
Verrazzano, Giovanni de “Voyages”
Williams, Roger “A Key to the Language of America”
Wood, William “New England’s Prospects”
Wroten, William D. “Verrazano’s1524 Letter…” Edward H Nabb Research Ctr.

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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

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Part II: Boundaries Upon The Land and People

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Part II Boundaries Upon The Land and People.

Early on in James Truslow Adam’s authoritative history The Founding of New England, we find as succinct a summary as may be possible in describing the years when the complex but often negotiable coexistence between Native and New Americans Southern New England  began to sour.

“By 1675…The settled area which by that year extended westward from the sea one third of the way across Massachusetts, was continued from Cape Cod along the Sound and up the Connecticut River, and the Western Massachusetts towns were scattered up the valley of the latter as far as Northfield. It was now the Indian who found himself, not simply far outnumbered, but entirely surrounded, by his white neighbors.”[1]

This was the perilous condition in which the Southern New England tribes found themselves  after the devastation of the Pequot and Wampanoag wars. Adams writes that “ The land-hunger of the whites…was insatiable. Almost any trouble with the natives became a sufficient excuse for an extorted cession of territory, either immediate, or deferred.” [2]

In some areas of New England, such as Newport, Rhode Island, the town authorities issued a writ against the harassment of the remaining Native Americans. What were the circumstances that had occurred from the early days of collusion and co-existence to those years of war and devastation? Was it simply the “steady stream of emigration” that flooded Native lands, the wealthy land speculators who opened the floodgates?

Roger Williams famously complained that land had become “ one of the gods of New England”, and the influx of whites leading up to King Philip’s War had certainly swelled the populated areas. But there is more to the story of those years that saw the unraveling of the complex relations between Native Americans and European settlers in the region.

Perhaps a brief examination of the Native American tradition of “ownership” or “territory” as the Europeans called it, might be a fitting place to begin. Native boundaries of their “territory” were those natural in the landscape: the rivers, hills, meadows, and rolling hills that marked the New England countryside. A concise description of this centuries old practice can be found in the colonial diary of Vermont born Daniel Harmon, who recorded that

“Each tribe has its particular tract of country; and this is divided again, among the several families which compose each tribe. Rivers, lakes, and mountains serve them as boundaries; and the limits of the territory which belongs to each family are as well known to the tribe as the lines which separate farms are, by the farmers in the civilized world”

But these borders as they were, remained open through the practice of trade as we have seen, and other agreements between neighboring tribes for use of fishing, hunting, use of ancient paths that connected boundaries, were part of the Native American perception of their land and its uses.

Sidney S. Rider, reports in The Lands of Rhode Island as known by Canonicus and Miantonomo that

“ while having no written laws, the Narragansetts were scrupulous in what we would call their lawful duties to each other. They strictly observed the land boundary lines, even in their hunting of animals…if killed in the water the skin was given as a tribute to the sachem of the tribe upon whose lands the deer was killed. But if the animal was killed on the land, the fore-quarters were taken to the ruling sachem”.

These beliefs were often the cause of unease, and then mistrust in the aftermath of selling a parcel of land to white settlers. Early conflicts in court, or confrontations on the land, reflected Native American interpretation of such agreements. Sometimes brought to court for trespass, surely an unfamiliar term to Native Americans; the idea that they had sold their rights to fish a long visited stream, or hunt in a place where the deer were known to gather during the spring rut was inconceivable to many.

As William Cronon writes in Changes in the Land,

“When lands were traded or sold…what were exchanged were usufruct rights, acknowledgements by one group that another might use an area for planting or hunting or gathering. Such rights were limited to the period of use, and they did  not include many of the privelages Europeans commonly associated with ownership…”[3]

In most cases, the response of the colonial governments was to attempt an enforcement of English law upon the Native Americans, but this was not always so.

Land deeded by Miantonomo to Samuel Gorton and his followers continued to have Narragansett and other neighboring tribes traveling through its boundaries as late as the period of the Revolutionary War.

Such was not the case at Aquidneck, as we have seen. Not only did the settlers want the remaining Narragansett off the island, but by 1641, the town governance had ordered that “no man shall goe two miles from the Towne unarmed eyther with Gunn or Sword and that none shall Come to any Publick Meeting without his weapon.”

The town also placed strict hunting limits on its inhabitants, but also stated “that no Indian shall be suffered to kill or destroy at any time or any wher.[4] Within a few short years of the deed, The General Court of Election also issued orders that “no Indian shall fall or peelany trees upon the Islands”, prohibited townspeople from giving, selling, “or in any other waies convey, any Powlder, shott, Gunn, Pistoll. sword, or any other Engine of warr, to the Indians that are or may prove offensive to this State” , and resolved that it’s citizens were not to encourage friendship with the Narragansett, and levied fines against any homeowner having said Indians as visitors, giving them liquor or any other hospitality.

Tensions between the settlers and Narragansett as well as neighboring tribes were also exacerbated by the fundamental differences in use of the land.

The Narragansett were long established as an agricultural people, and as part of the traditional method of renewing the land, used fire both for its nutritive benefits in the fields, and in removing the undergrowth in the woodlands. One astonished European traveler wrote that he could “gallop his horse” through the park-like forest.

Managed fires in the region routinely removed briars and brambles that would choke paths as well as slow the growth of Oak and Maple trees, the Birches and Chestnuts that were native to New England. As Roger Williams observed:

“this burning of the Wood to them they count as a Benefit, both for destroying of vermin, and keeping downe the Weeds and thickets.”

This method of removing undergrowth may also have been an ingenious defensive measure, as any party of Native Americans or Europeans would be immediately exposed on entering their lands.

As William Cronon points out in “Changes In The Land”, these practices had as well, a renewable outcome for other sources of food, clothing, and religious rituals:

“Indian burning promoted the increase of exactly those species whose abundance so impressed English colonists: elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, turkey, quail, ruffed grouse, and so on. When these populations increased, so did the carnivorous eagles, hawks, lynxes, foxes, and wolves…”

The burning of fields before winter, or to drive game from the tall grasses during the autumn hunting were long traditions, as was a natural economizing of the use of their environment by frequently moving between established sites throughout tribal lands.

The Narragansett language reflects this awareness, as do many Indian place names. An acute respect for what the land gave and its fragility, has always been a fundamental characteristic of Native American beliefs.

Agawon, a low lying area east of Providence was known as the place to unload canoes, Antashantuck, or “well forested place” referred to an area of what is now the Johnston/Cranston line, around Randall  (once Antashantuck) pond. Other place names relect their use such as Homogansett which means literally “hunting ground” or Papanomscutt,  (place where we get fish in winter).

Europeans had little understanding of these areas long used by the Narragansett and other tribes. The typical English habit of settling the land and draining it of resources before moving to another tract of land was no different in Rhode Island in its impact of indigenous ways of life.

As historian Michael Leroy Oberg observes

“The settlers used swamps and marshes for grazing cattle and allowed their hogs to root for food on coastal and estuarine mud flats. To natives, the wet-lands were the source of raw material for native basketry, and the mud flats provided habitat for the shellfish that constituted an important element of their diet. As English settlers cleared the uplands, moreover, they eliminated shelter for wild animals and so altered the hunting potential of the region. And, as in Virginia, free-ranging English livestock frequently ravaged native cornfields, damaging a staple of the coastal Algonquian….”[5]

The destruction of fields by English livestock was a long registered complaint from the Wampanoag to Plymouth’s Bradford, as the English broadened out settlements from the original town atop what is now Cole’s Hill.

In 1620. there was little the Wampanoag or other Massachusetts tribes could do about the taking of their lands. An epidemic of hepatitis between 1616 and 1619 had taken what is estimated to be 90 % of the tribe’s people. The early chronicler John White wrote that the wave of illness “swept away most of the Inhabitants all along the Sea Coast, and in some places utterly consumed man, woman, & childe, so that there is no person left to lay claime to the soyle which they possessed.”[6]

Neighboring tribes along the East Coast from Cape Cod to Maine were affected by the latest illness to bebrought by European sailors to New England shores.

In their long and meandering journey to Plymouth, the Pilgrims had scarcely seen a Native American. They had uncovered bushels of corn stored on the Cape, and briefly pursued a group of natives noticed on the beach, but what remained of those tribes nearby were understandably cautious about approaching the English or being noticed.

Encounters with Europeans had soon soured despite the Native American’s early willingness to trade. By 1602, vessels from European countries cod-fishing offshore were a common sight, and inspired the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold to give the area its name of Cape Cod.

It was not long however, before European visitors, intent on establishing trading posts, had worn out their welcome. Indian raids and fires began destroying the posts sent these early would be settlers sailing for home.

But European exploration persisted and brought increasingly violent encounters, with the Englishman Edward Harlow abducting at least half a dozen Native Americans, and Thomas Hunt, a commander in Captain John Smith’s expedition of 1614, kidnapping as many natives as could fill his hold to be sold into slavery in Spain, though not all seem to have reached that destination.

In the spring and summer of 1619, the English explorer Thomas Dermer visited the region accompanied by Tisquantum, one of the natives abducted by Hunt five years earlier. They found the area desolate and largely abandoned. Those scattered settlementsthat still remained partially populated had been ravaged by disease.

Tisquantum led Dermer through native territories in Nemasket and onto Sowams where they found the Pokanoket  Sachem Massasoit. By the Englishman’s account, the meeting was pleasant and satisfactory, the Sachem even handing over a French captive who had been taken from a shipwreck a year earlier.

The following spring however, anther English ship anchored in Narragansett Bay and invited a large group of unarmed Pokanoket aboard, where they were slaughtered in cold blood.

The following summer of 1620, when Dermer reappeared in New England, he was dismayed to find his party come under attack at almost every outpost visited. When he arrived at Martha’s Vineyard, the attack was so fierce that only he and another Englishman survived to flee the assault. Dermer was wounded badly and died a short time after reaching refuge in Virginia.

When the Pilgrims finally began building a few houses on the hill in Plymouth, it was late December and neighboring tribes who may have been along the shore were hunkered down well inland in encampments for the winter. If the journey aboard the Mayflower had not been so long and arduous, the now fabled Bradford might have met Dermer’s fate.

Indeed, Massasoit was well aware of their arrival, but with his people depleted and tensions with the Narragansett occupying his warriors, he determined to wait and see what strength remained of men and weapons in Plymouth with the coming of spring. Tisquantaum, traveling between Patuxet and Sowams, searching for the remnants of his own family, had met with Massasoit and given him some idea of the size of the settlement, but the Sachem seems to have had a measure of mistrust toward the Native American from Maine, and a member of a once rival tribe.

Tisquantum was the first to boldly enter the compound in March, a day after he and a group of Natives spotted the Europeans across the brook which widened at the top of the hill, it’s waters fed by what became known as the Billington Sea, a large, wide lake two miles inland from the bay.[7] His loud proclamation of “welcome Englishmen” astonished the Pilgrim leaders who had expected a confrontation, and of course knew nothing of the Native American’s past. Squanto, as he was to be named by the Pilgrims, proved to be an invaluable friend.

In that spring before Thanksgiving, the Native taught the Pilgrim farmers the use of the herring that ran town brook, to fertilize the planting of corn, the English adapting a plan for acreage of corn in small plots rather than a large field as the Natives preferred, based upon their own idea of property.

Tisquantum negotiated with Massasoit about approaching the new settlement. The Sachem of course, had no idea how bitter the winter had been for those English exiles, and it seems to have been the consensus of his own people that despite Tisquantum’s assurances, the Pilgrims were at first unwelcome.

As noted in Nathaniel Philbrick’s “The Mayflower”, Pokanoket powwows, or medicine men, chanted incantations throughout the winter to conjure up spirits and drive the newcomers away. When this seemed to fail, Tisquantum took the opportunity to play upon the Sachem’s fears. He told Massasoit that the Pilgrims possessed great cannons, and many muskets, as well as having the ability to unleash disease upon their enemies as a weapon of war.

Tisquantum advised the Sachem to befriend the English. Ties with the powerful newcomers, he assured Massasoit, meant that old adversaries like the Narragansett, “would be constrained to bow to him”.

Ever cautious, Massasoit initially sent a neighboring Sachem named Samoset to visit the Pilgrim compound. This Sachem effectively prepared the settlement for a visit from Massasoit.

On March 22, 1621, Samoset, with Tisquantum in tow, arrived in Plymouth with the news that Massasoit and his brother would soon be nearby.

The Pokanoket entourage of sixty warriors stood on Watson’s Hill, faces painted with black or red ochre, “some yellow, and some white, some with crosses and other antic works.” The warriors heads glistened in the cold with bear grease.

It must have been an intimidating sight for the Pilgrim leaders who numbered now about twenty men, including Edward Winslow whose wife lay dying as he placed himself in the natives hands while Massasoit and twenty unarmed Pokanoket went to meet with Governor Carver.

Both Massasoit and his brother Quadequina were given receptions as fit for dignitaries as the Plymouth settlement could muster. An agreement was reached between the Pokanoket and the Pilgrims which Bradford recorded as follows:

1.That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.

2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.

3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people were at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the like to him.

4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him, if any did war against us, he should aid us.

5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might likewise be comprised in the conditions of peace.

6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them.

No doubt, the Pilgrim leaders were relieved to have crafted a covenant with the Pokanoket Sachem, but the sudden illness and death of Governor Carver but a few short weeks after the agreement, caused unease and dissension within the Plantation. Without their late leader’s guiding hand, mistrust and rebellion threatened the future of Plymouth.

Although weakened by illness, William Bradford assumed the role of Governor with Israel Allerton, Edward Winslow, William Brewster, and the militaristic Miles Standish serving as the authorities who would guide the settlement to peace and prosperity.

In July, Bradford sent Winslow and Stephen Hopkins to confer with Massasoit. Since the Sachem’s visit in March, the Plantation had seen an array of Native American visitors, especially from nearby Nemasket. While the visitors were welcomed, in Winslow’s words, “his people came very often, and many together, …bringing for the most part, their wives and children with them, …yet…not knowing how our corn might prosper we could no longer give them entertainment as we had done, and as we still desired to do.”[8]

The Plymouth leaders devised a means by way of a copper coin fastened on a chain that would be worn by visitors the Sachem had sent to the plantation. All other visitors would then be turned peaceably away. The party set out with Tisquantum to find “the great King”and deliver the chain along with a “horseman’s coat of red cotton, and laced with a small lace, for a present; that both they and their message might be more acceptable amongst them”.

Traveling to Nemasket, and then along the Titcut (Taunton) River for several days, Winslow observed the cleared fields and pondered 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.”

Arriving in Packanokick, the party found that Massasoit was not home, but waited until word came of his arrival. The Sachem welcomed the visitors and brought them to his house, where

“having delivered our foresaid Message, and presents; and having put the coat on his back and the chain about his neck; he was not a little proud to behold himself, and his men to see their King, so bravely attired.”

Massasoit told Winslow and Hopkins that

“he would gladly continue that peace and friendship which was between him and us; and for his men, they should no more pester us as they had done…This being done, his men gathered near to him: to whom he turned himself, and made a great speech; they sometimes interposing, and as it were confirming and applauding him in that he said. The meaning whereof was, as far as we could learn, thus: Was not he MASSASOYT, Commander of the country about them? Was not such a town his, and the people of it? And should they not bring their skins to us? To which they answered, These were his, and would be at peace with us, and bring their skins to us. After this manner, he named at least thirty places; and their answer was as aforesaid, to every one: so that, as it was delightful, it was tedious unto us.”

The Pilgrims were to find out however, that there were indeed limits to Massasoit’s authority. Not long after they had returned to Plymouth, that authority was put to the test when sixteen year old John Billington went exploring in the woods and became lost. In Bradford’s words the boy

“wandered up and down for some five days, living on berries and what he could find. At length he light on an Indian plantation twenty miles south of this place called Manomet; they conveyed him further off, to Nauset among those people that had before set upon the English when they were coasting whilst the ship lay at the Cape…”[9]

As Billington had come upon into an encampment that was overseen by the Pakonoket, the Sachem Canacum seems to have used the opportunity to show his disapproval of Massasoit’s  recent alliance with the English. The Nausets had been little effected by the plagues, and their strength had increased in the years that followed

Their Sachem Aspinet now commanded a considerable body of warriors.

The Pilgrims appealed to Massasoit for help, and while he held no provenance over the Nauset, he was able to convey where the boy was located to Plymouth authorities.

Once again, Edward Winslow was dispatched with a party of men to negotiate with the natives for the boy’s return. Winslow’s account, carefully written to be a justification of the Colonists endeavors, shows the reader that the leaders at the outset undertook to engage neighboring tribes and recompense for the earlier wrongs they’d received at English hands,  that the Plymouth inhabitants “were attempting to lead virtuous lives to accomplish God’s will”.[10]

Along with several men in the party were Tisquantum and his friend Tokamahamon who would serve as interpreters in negotiations. They set off from Plymouth harbor in fair weather, but as Winslow writes

“ere we had been long at sea, there arose a storm of wind and rain, with much lightening and thunder, insomuch that a spout arose not far from us. But, GOD be praised! it dured not long: and we put in, that night, for harbour, at a place, called Cummaquid[11]; where we had some hope to find the boy.”

The party spent the night in the boat at low tide, and in the morning spotted several natives collecting lobsters. Tisquantum waded out to a point where a channel separated the men and called out to them. In the exchange that followed, the Pilgrims ascertained that while Billington was not there, he was well and in the hands of the Nausets farther up the Cape. The party was invited to come ashore, which, given this good news, they agreed to do so.

Winslow and the others were brought to meet the young Sachem Iyanough, – “gentle, courteous, and fair conditioned : indeed not like a savage,  save for his attire”, was the Englishman’s impression.

While in Iyanough’s company, they were visited by “an old woman, whom we judged to be no less than a hundred years old”, who broke down weeping upon seeing the Englishmen.  In translation through Tisquantum, it was learned that the woman’s three sons were among those taken captive by Hunt seven years before, and she despaired of ever seeing them again.

The men from Plymouth had but a few trivial items to give in recompense, but Winslow sought with words to differentiate between those English these Native Americans had encountered before, and the devout people of his plantation.

“We told them, We were sorry that any Englishman should give them that offence; that HUNT was a bad man, and that all the English that heard of it condemned him for the same : but for us, we would not offer them any such injury; though it would gain us all the skins in the country.”[12]

After sharing a meal, the party set out for Nauset, guided by Iyanough and two of his men. They put in at the harbor[13] near sunset, and the Sachem of Cummaquid strode ashore with his men, followed by Tisquantum to convey greetings to Aspinet that they had come for young Billington. It was not long before the nearby natives “came very thick amongst us and were earnest with us to bring in our boat; but we neither well could: nor desired to do it, because we had less cause to trust them…”

Winslow had recognized several natives as the men who had briefly assaulted them the year before while searching for a suitable site for the plantation.

At length, the Pilgrims allowed two men to enter the boat, a native from Mamoik[14], and the other who claimed the corn that the Pilgrims had found and taken some months before. Winslow again was diplomatic and offered that the native “come to Patuxet[15] for satisfaction, or else we would bring them so much corn again.” This seemed to appease the natives and they traded a few skins with the party.

Indeed, these overtures to Iyanough’s people and to the natives at Nauset seem to have ensured young Billington’s quick release, for

“ After sunset, Aspinet came, with a great train, and brought the boy with him, one bearing him through the water. He had not less than a hundred with him: the half whereof came to the shallop side unarmed with him; the other stood aloof with their bows and arrows. There he delivered us the boy, behung with beads; and made peace with us: we bestowing a knife upon him; and likewise on another that first entertained the boy, and brought him thither.”

The Nauset also informed the party that the Narragansett had recently killed several Pakonoket in a skirmish, and taken Massasoit hostage. This greatly alarmed the men from Plymouth who had themselves; long feared an attack from the Narragansett, and they “set forth with resolution to make the best haste home we could.” But the wind and the waves were against them, and after roughly fifty miles , they were forced to put the shallop ashore. The Cummaquid Sachem and his people had followed their slow progress, and assisted them again with water and provisions as

“ the women joined hand in hand, singing and dancing before the shallop; the men also shewing all the kindness they could. IYANOUGH himself taking a bracelet from around his neck, and hanging it upon one of us.”

It was another day before the sea calmed and they could make it home.

Once in Plymouth, they learned from the Pakonoket that their Sachem had indeed been captured and taken off his land, and that the tribe suspected one rogue Sachem named Corbitant[16] to be the culprit in league with the Narragansett. The sachem was said to have been “storming at the Peace between Nauset, Cummaquid, and us; and at TISQUANTUM, the worker of it…”

Despite these dire warnings, Tisquantum took another Indian named Hobbamock[17] with him and ventured toward Namaschet  “to see if they could hear of their King”. They were not long in the village when their presence was made known to Corbitant  who quickly dispatched a guard to the house and took Tisquantum prisoner. Hobbamock managed to escape, but by the time of his arrival in Plymouth, was certain that the Pilgrim’s emissary had been slain.

Bradford and the other Pilgrim leaders felt they had little choice but to uphold the compact they had made with Massasoit. In mid-August they assembled an armed party of ten men who set out in the rain toward Nemashet. when they were roughly four miles from the town, they diverted to spend the night without notice.

“There we consulted what to do: and thinking best to beset the house at midnight, each was appointed his task by the Captain…”

That Captain was Miles Standish, whose actions that night long ago have been the source of  debate and much introspection within the histories that have been written in the past few centuries. Bradford, writing years after the event scarcely issues a summarization of the events:

“The Captain, giving charge to let none pass out, entered the house to search for him. But he was gone away that day, so they missed him, but understood that Squanto was alive, and that he had only threatened to kill him…So they withheld and did no more hurt.”[18]

The Governor mentions the “three sore wounded” who escaped, but Winslow’s account, written remember, with a more diplomatic view in mind, records that

“Those that entered demanded, if (CORBITANT) were not there? But fear had bereft the savages of speech. We charged them not to stir, for if (CORBITANT) were not there, We would not meddle with them. If he were, We came principally for him, to be avenged on him, for the supposed death of TISQUANTUM; and other matters: but howsoever, we would not at all hurt their women and children…”[19]

Winslow also writes of some escaping “from a private door” with wounds, but only other sources reveal that women clung to Hobbomock to show the English he was a friend,  and that the men standing guard outside fired their muskets at those natives who attempted to flee the chaotic scene. [20]

Those who remained in the wigwam had their bows and arrows confiscated and were guarded all night, the emboldened “guards” discharging two pieces at morning when they were set free. Standish learned that Corbitant and his faction of warriors had fled during the night to Mattapoisett.

The armed party marched to Tisquantum’s house to have breakfast, and there, surrounded by

“all whose hearts were upright by us…We manifested again our intendment; assuring them, That although (CORBITANT) had escaped us: yet there was no place should secure him from us, if he continued his threatening us, and provoking others against us;…Moreover, if Massasoit did not return in safety from (Narragansett); or if he should make any insurrection against him; or offer violence to TISQUANTUM, HOBBAMOCK, or any of MASSASOYT’S subjects: we would revenge it upon him, to the overthrow of him and his.”

The Pilgrim leaders then brought the wounded back to Plymouth to be tended by their surgeon.

In the weeks that followed this confrontation, word began to seep into Plymouth that tribes as far north as the Martha’s Vineyard had heard of the show of force by the Pilgrims, and Bradford began to receive overtures for peace. This was as Captain Standish had predicted, but it may in fact have had more to do with the leaders keeping their compact with the Pakonoket rather than a show of intimidation as Standish had executed.

On September 13, 1621 nine neighboring Sachems traveled to Plymouth to sign allegiance to King James. I have searched for the document or some copy to ascertain the visiting Sachem’s marks in vain, but the text of the “treaty” was copied and is as follows:

“Know all men by these Presents, That we whose Names are under-written do acknowledge our selves to be the Loyal Subjects of King James, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith &c. “

Those “under-signed” included Ohquamehud of the Wampanoag, Quadaquina, the brother of Massasoit, and Canacum, the Sachem from Manomet, whom the Pilgrims had dealings with already, but also representatives from the Nauset and Nipmuck tribes. Even Corbitant signed, though he would remain a reluctant ally to the English. Such “treaties” were nothing new to the Native Americans, as we shall examine later, and it was not so extraordinary an event that Bradford or Winslow gave it much space in their accounts.

Still, with the subjugation came “a firmer peace”, and let the parties disperse and work the harvest without worry of property or crops being damaged or disrupted by raids from either Native Americans or Standish’s militia.

Just days after this gathering, Winslow, Tisquantum,  and Standish set out again with a small group to find and negotiate with the Massachusett tribes, having long been told that they posed a threat to the Plantation. But what they found were scattered remanants of villages, and people living in fear of the war like qualities which by then had been attributed to the English, as well as fear of their own enemies as tribes had fallen into sometimes brutal submission to more powerful nations. One such people that dominated Massachusetts tribes at the time were called the Tarentines (Abnaki), who routinely paddled down from the shores of Maine after harvest and raid the corn stores, killing and indiscriminately destroying villages in the process. Samuel Eliot Morison called them

“the Vikings of New England, preferring to take corn from their neighbors rather than grow it.”

Chickataubat, a Massachusets Sachem had attended the gathering, and when Winslowand Tisquantum told the Sachem Obbatinewat of this event, he readily gave his word to join ranks with the other sachems, even taking the party across the Bay to present day Charlestown to seek out a Massachusetts queen who had been an enemy.

The party arrived at night and rode anchor in the Bay until morning when they went ashore, leaving two men behind in the shallop. Standish led them some five or six miles inland where they found newly cleared fields of corn and an abandoned village, close by they found a fort where

“there were poles, some thirty or forty feet long, stuck in the ground as thick as they could be set one against another: and with these, they inclosed a ring some forty or fifty feet over. A trench, breast high, was digged out on either side. One way there was to go into it; with a bridge. “

Inside the fort they found a wigwam where inside lay the body of Nanepashemet, the Sachem who had been killed in 1619, lay buried. None of the remaining tribe had lived there since. Within another mile, they found a handful of women and an elderly man “trembling for fear”, and learned that the Queen they sought was far away. Here, Winslow’s tact and diplomacy swayed the others in the party from taking advantage of the pitiful condition of the Natives, despite Tisquantum’s insistence that “they are a bad people; and have often threatened you”.

Rather than rob the women of everything useful, Winslow promised to establish trade, and soon after, he recorded: “Having well spent the day, we returned to the shallop: almost all the women accompanying us to truck(trade).Who sold their coats from their backs…”

The party learned of the two rivers that entered the Bay, the Pilgrims having seen the entrance to what is now the Charles, but had little time to explore, though Winslow noted that “better harbors for shipping cannot be, than here are…” With the trading done, and relations for future trade established, the men entered the shallop and with “the wind coming fair, and having a light moon; we set out at evening: and through the goodness of GOD, came safely home, before noon the day following…”

In such a spirit was a spontaneous gathering held, ”at which time” Winslow wrote

“amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms(muskets), many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Masasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five der which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon the Governor and upon the Captain and others…”  This gathering, whose exact date is not recorded, became known in North American memory as the first Thanksgiving. The flush of that good will was still felt weeks later when Edward Winslow wrote to friends in England:

“Wee have found the Indians very faithfull in their Covenant of Peace with us; very living and readie to pleasure us: we often goe to them, and they come to us; some of us have bin fiftie myles by Land in the Country with them; the occasions and Relations . .. Yea it hath pleased God so to possess the Indians with a feare of us, and love unto us, that not onely the greatest King amongst them call Massasoyt, but also all the Princes peoples round about us, have either made sute unto us, or beene glad of any occasion to make peace with us, so that seaven of them at once have sent their messengers to us to that end . . . So that there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was formerly, neither would have bin but for us; and we for our parts walke as peaceably and safely in the wood, as in the hie ways in England, we entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their Venison on us.”

The old histories tell us that this peace crafted largely by Winslow’s diplomacy lasted some 54 years until the outbreak of King Philip’s War. But the truth is that the peace was always tenuous, and often troubled by circumstances beyond Winslow and Massasoit’s control.

When the Plymouth leader looked out from Fort Hill that mid-December morning to see The Fortune carry his enthusiastic missive to England, he could not know that those whom the ill-named vessel had left behind were to provide months of misery,  and certainly the beginning of the end of an idealistic European experiment on New England’s shore.

[1] Adams, James Truslow “The Founding of New England” Vol 1 p.339

[2] Ibid p.340

[3] Cronon, William “Changes in the Land” p. 62

[4] General Court of Election, March 1641

[5] Dominion & Civility: English Imperialism & Native America 1585-1685 pp. 128

[6] White, John Planters Plea 14. quoted in Oberg..p.84

[7] First discovered by Francis Billington, a fourteen year old Boy who’d climbed a tree atop Fort Hill and seen “another great sea” in the distance. See Philbrick’s “The Mayflower” p. 110

[8] Winslow, Edward “Mourt Relations”

[9] Bradford William “Of Plymouth Plantation” 1953 S.E.Morton ed. p 87 Bradford refers to the previously mentioned Dermer party.

[10] Bangs, Jeremy D. “Pilgrim Edward Winslow” p. 34 NEHGS 2004

[11] present day Barnstable Harbor.

[12] Winslow “Ibid”

[13] present day Eastham

[14] now Chatham

[15] the ancient Indian name for the area the English named “New Plymouth”.

[16] I use Bradford’s spelling of the sachem’s name as it is most often used in modern retellings.

[17] Not much is known about this Native American’s origin. Winslow describes him as “a strong and stout man”,  and a Pinsese (a warrior considered in strength and endurance to be  ”of rank” above others, and often used for special missions by the Sachem.) Adams wrote that the “Indian…made his home with them, and remained faithful all his life.” He was apparently well known as a guide in the region and he may have been as Squanto, an early broker for trade with the Europeans. His name however, as Winslow and others were to find; is remarkably similar to a diety described by William S. Simmons as “a principal cause of disease and suffering.” (See Simmons, ”Cauttantowitts House” p. 51) Philbrick states that both Squanto and Hobbomack “were named for the devil” . From Winslow’s accounts we know the diety “appears in sundry forms unto them  :as in the shape of a man, a deer, a fawn, an eagle, &c. but most ordinarily, a snake.”An intriguing question might be whether this individual may have been blamed for the plagues that occurred in the region and thus the diety that shared his name acquired a new transformation. This is all the more striking when we read  John Josselyn’s account from “A Relation of Two Voyages to New England” (1673): “…two Indians and an Indess came running into our house, crying they should all dye, Cheepie was gone over the field gliding in the Air with a long rope hanging from one of his legs: we asked them what he was like, they said all wone Englishman, clothed with hat and coat, shooes and stockings, &c.” p. The name is also associated with the legend of “Devil’s Foot Rock” in South Kingston where “a stern-looking Englishman” appeared to a Narragansett woman and identified himself as “Hobomock” before taking her in flight to nearby Purgatory Chasm and tossing her to the broiling waves below.

[18] Bradford, “Of Plymouth Plantation” p. 88

[19] Winslow, “Mourt Relations”

[20] see Philbrick, “The Mayflower” pp. 114-115

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Northeastern Indian Adaptation to European Perception of Person, Property, and Law: Part I The Mark of A Man

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Part I The Mark of A Man

When the sachems Canonicus and Miantonomo etched their “signatures” with the symbols of a bow and an arrow respectively, on the deed that granted land to Roger Williams, one wonders what experiences had they already encountered in affixing, or even determining what would come to be known as their “signature” on documents attesting their agreements with English settlers and governors in the Colonial period.

Original deed for Providence Plantations in the Archives of the city of Providence. Photo from the Providence Journal.

It must have seemed a curious custom to the Narragansett, as it did with the Wampanoag, and other neighboring tribes throughout the Northeast when they first encountered European ideas of person, property, and law.

Of the Narragansett, Roger Williams wrote

“they have no Bookes nor Letters, and conceive their Fathers never had…having no letters, their painting…(on garments, bodies, and faces) comes nearest”

Other early accounts by Europeans to Narragansett villages portray a people embedded in the land, and indebted to the gods who provided for them. Native Americans engaged in trade with Europeans from the 16th century and certainly coveted some goods, but had little regard for the famed baubles and beads that adventurers swore would buy the bearer swaths of Indian land.

As historian Eric Jay Dolan wrote in his recent volume “Fur, Fortune and Empire”,

“The Indians interest in European goods…must not be confused with the desire to accumulate wealth or become rich. Unlike the Europeans, for whom becoming richer through trade was the chief goal, the Indians had no interest in that pursuit.”

Edward Winslow, an early visitor from Plymouth, wrote in astonishment of such adornments being ceremonially cast into a great fire, along with “kettles, skins, hatchets, …knives, &c.” [1]

Some years later, Roger Williams recounts a similar ritual, enacted during Keesaqunnamun, a harvest feast of thanksgiving in a Long House built for the occasion where

“many thousands, men and women meet, where he that goes in danceth in the sight of all the rest; and is prepared with money, coats, small breeches, knifes, or what he is able to reach to, and gives these things away to the poore.”[2]

Such accounts lay bare only some of the striking differences between European and Native American beliefs that were at the core of the struggle of European expansion in North America. Embedded with the land as the Narragansett and other tribes had been for centuries, their beliefs of a sacred permanence in the land, the continuity of spirit, made European ideas of property intangible, and a perceived threat to their way of life.  Despite this, “the sociableness of the nature of man…in the wildest of them, who love societie, families, cohabitation,…”,  led Native Americans to generally welcome European visitors from the time that the Dutch flytes, looking like “great tree’d Islands” to the Narragansett; anchored offshore.

As neighboring lands were colonized, the Narragansett naturally grew wary of  English expansion and discouraged communication between the colonies. To the far west, beyond the Pequot and Mohegan lands, Native tribes had become reckless in war, in part due to confrontation fueled by the competition for furs and goods for trade.

As a people, the Narragansett were wary of “the uncertain events of warre” William Wood recorded in 1634, “they rest secure under the conceit of their popularitie, and seeke rather to grow rich by industrie, than famous by deeds of Chevalry” [3]

The lives of the Narragansett had seen centuries of relative harmony, whose people had grown into a dominant, but peaceful nation. Their “wealth” came from trade with neighboring tribes, again forming a peaceful bond and also lucrative trading places from Charlestown as far north as Pawtucket.  The Narragansett were an agricultural people, whose exports would have included corn, squashes, pumpkins, and various beans.

The women grew and harvested the great “gardens” and also dried fish that the men caught for winter storage as well as trade. They also manufactured a type of pemmican cake of dried deer meet, berries and animal fat that was a staple among Indians and trappers alike on long journeys.

Narragansett women also fashioned bowls, plates, cups, and amulets of pottery as well as textiles and woven baskets and “purses”. These items were long used in both daily living and for trade with other tribes, but with the advent of the Europeans, the manufacturing of goods for trade, especially clay pipes for smoking tobacco increased expeditiously.

Another major source of secure income was the manufacturing of Wampumpeage or “wampum” as it came to be called. Wood writes that the Narragansett were the “mint-masters “ of the region, for the currency that was used up and down the eastern seaboard.

19th century popular history illustration of European traders exchanging goods for wampum. The Native American holds a “wampum belt” the equivalent of today’s wallet.

Trade with Europeans however, was always seen as a risk to elders among the tribes. While their long standing trade with the French, Dutch, and English provided the cooking wares, hoes, rakes, axes, and other implements and adornments that, as Patricia Rubertone has written, were “incorporated…into their everyday lives and sacred traditions”,  trade was also changing their way of life and creating a dependency which leaders would come to regret, for with theEuropean trade came also disease, liquor, and weapons.

The Narragansett were certainly aware of the bloody result of Dutch trade with the Iroquois who used European weapons to wage revenge on old adversaries for nearly thirty years. Canonicus gift of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin and his refusal of gunpowder and bullets from Bradford in Plymouth was a clear warning against their overtures, no matter how bold it might seem given the risk of military action. It was not until 1631 that he would send his son in the company of a Massachusetts Sachem to visit Governor John Winthrop with the gift of an animal skin. The Governor of the Bay Colony reciprocated with “ a fair pewter pot, which he took very thankfully”.  Thus, an extension of the same bond afforded by trade, with subject expectations, was created by the Narragansett toward Massachusetts Authorities.

But then, “Rid Island” was a mystery to many in the Bay Colony, and few found its swamplands and rocky shores of much value to invest in settlement.  Until friendship with Roger Williams, any agreements with Europeans were transfers of goods in trade and as such,  terms of peace. Trade established a bond, one personal and political in Native American’s eyes. As one Indian told William Wood, “to trade is to seeke peace.” The selling of Narragansett land to anyone, would not have come without the advantage of an earned trust and mutual respect.

Writing some twenty years after his purchase of Providence Plantations and his assistance with the purchase of Aquidneck Island,  Williams declared:

“It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode-Island. Rhode-Island was obtained by love; by the love and favour which that honorable gentleman Sir Henry Vane and myself had with that great Sachem Miantonomu, about the league which I procured between the Massachusetts English, & c, and the Narragansett in the Pequod war.”[4]

Narragansett custom placed individuality above all other characteristics of their tribal life. The people came together in Council at appointed times, worshipped with customary rituals, and worked together as a community throughout the changing seasons, but their inherent grasp of individualism, like other Native American tribes became both a nemesis and a symbol that New Americans would adopt in the name of their own independence.

Roger Williams, as a trader who learned the Algonquian language, respected customs and  rituals, and was himself a free-thinker, was thus viewed as a sympathetic exile from the neighboring European colony. Williams came to act as mediator for Narragansett and Massachusetts Authorities as the Pequot relationship with the Dutch descended into war.

The Pequots had long tested Narragansett authority. At the time of Verrazanno’s visit, the tribe had recently concluded a long eunning dispute with the Pequot over Acquidneck Island. In 1636 Canonicus’ grim gift of the hand of a Pequot warrior along with a substantial amount of wampum, was the first indication that political pressure had brought the Narragansett to negotiation with the Bay Colony.  The terms of friendship secured, the tribe would side with Massachusetts despite overtures from their old enemies to join in alliance against both European intruders.

Despite these developments, there were ever more individuals who desired to purchase land from the Narragansett and settle in the newly founded colony. When a group which included William Coddington, William Hutchinson, and John Clarke among others, set out to buy Aquidneck Island in 1637,  Williams composed the deed, and led the party to confer with Wonnumentonomey, the local sachem, who referred them to the chief  Sachems Canonicus and Miantonomu. When the party crossed the Bay to Narragansett, Williams again mediated and persuaded the sachems to affix their “signatures” on the deed which read in part:

“That we…the two chiefe sachems of the Nanhiggansets, by vertue of our generall Command of this Bay, as also the particular subjecting of the dead Sachims of Aquednecke & Kitackmuckqut, themselves and Lands unto us, have sold unto Mr Coddington and his friends untited unto him, the great Island of Acquednecke lying from hence Eastward in this Bay, as also the Marsh or grasse upon Quinunigut and the rest of the Islands in the Bay, (exeptinge Chibachuwesa formerly sold unto Mr Winthrop, the now Gov’ of the Massachusetts and Mr Williams of Providence) also the grasse upon the rivers and Coves about Kitackamuckqut, and from these to Paupasquatch…”

At first glance this seems an enormous tract to cede to English hands, but a closer reading gives revealing hints at the temper of the times, and the transitions the Narragansett were facing as a people. One indication of the sachems willingness to part with the land was that the tracts sold, for the most part were inherited lands from the “dead Sachims”  of the Island now known as Newport as well as lands around Bristol leading down Bay to present day Popasquash Point. With these inheritances, no doubt came great responsibilities and time away from home and duties in Narragansett.

Roger Williams clearly saw the purchase of these and other lands as laying the foundation of his colony  under “liberty of conscience”. The Narragansett, with a dwindling population after early epidemics, may merely have wanted to sell the lands and distance themselves further from the Europeans.  A further indication of this is their agreement after selling the land that “ no Indian under his Jurisdiction shall eyther Winter or summer kindle or cause to be kindled any fiers upon the Lands…That no trappe or Engine be set by them upon the Island, to take or stroye the deare or other cattle theron,…That upon their trading and bargaining having agreed they shall not revoke the sde bargaine or take their goods away by force, & that they shall not be Ideling about nor resort to or howses, but for trade message or in their journeys.”

Such language shows a clear measure of mistrust beyond William Coddington’s comment that “Our Indians here are peaceable though we trust them not.”[5]

Narragansetts were also by this time, wary of European designs, and were suspect of their honesty in trade and agreements. Roger Williams records that

“Who ever deale or trade with them,had need of Wisedome, Patience, and Faithfulnesse In dealing: for they frequently say Cuppennauem, you lye, Cuttassokakomme, you deceive me.”

In signing the deed, however, there is also an indication of the two Sachems asserting to the English a clear hierarchy and a suggestion of a native code of law that would be followed in future negotiations. The Sachems seemed to recognized the importance of an individual’s signature in English customs, and adapted this importance in the evolution of their own “signatures” on the document.

Drawings of signatures deeds from Chapin’s “Documentary History of Rhode Island” Photos by author.

We see clearly that the elder Sachem has added a poised arrow to his bow. The younger Sachem Miantonomo, has depicted his signature as the arrow leaving the bow, a clear indication of whom the English would deal with in the future. Indeed, by 1639, when it became clear to Coddington that there were still some Narragansett on the south side of the Island, it was Miantonomo who negotiated with two lesser sachems and received

“(as a gratuety) of Mr Coddington and his Friends united for my paines and Travill in removeing off the natuves on the Island of Aquednecke tenn fathom of Wampum peage and one broad cloth coate.”

Miantonomo signed this receipt with his lone arrow signature, while the lesser Sachem adapted what looks to be the waves of the Bay.

By November, when the Island had been cleared and final gratuities of “Twenty and three Coates and thirteen howes to the Indians that did Inhabit off the Island of Aquednecke” were to be made, the document lists all Sachems involved with their individual “signatures”

Again, we see the distinctive “signatures of Canonicus and Miantonomo along with those symbols chosen by the lesser Sachems, what is apparently an English style hay rake for Wampammaquitt and a circle for Mompauke. These symbols may refer in Wampammaquitt’s case to the “English howes” that were part of the bargain, while Mompauke’s circle may be an example of Edward Winslow’s account of Indians making a simple hole in the ground to mark the site of a remarkable event, transferred by the Sachem onto parchment.

For many years historians maintained that there was scant evidence to suggest that Native Americans in New England practiced drawing symbols on rocks along the shore or on hides, and certainly not parchment before the influence of the Europeans. But there were sites and artifacts which caused some dispute in the historic and scientific communities. One of the most popular and puzzling sites was Dighton Rock. An early mention by Cotton Mather of this “curiosity of New England” describes

“ a mighty rock, on a perpendicular side whereof, by a river which at high tide covers part of it, there are very deeply engraved, no man alive knows how or when, about half a score lines near ten foot long and a foot and a half broad, filled with strange characters, which would suggest as odd thoughts about them that were here before us as there are odd shapes in that elaborate monument, whereof you shall see the first line transcribed here.”

Drawing of characters on Dighton Rock. After Delabarre.

Samuel Drake mentions in his “Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast” in 1857 that “the characters on Dighton rock are generally admitted to be of Indian creation.” Yet a few generations later, their authenticity had somehow come into question.

In describing the inscriptions in an article in 1924, Edmund Delabarre, who early in that decade chronicled an impressive history of inscribed rocks around Narragansett Bay, concluded that

“between 1640 and 1675, inspired by the white men’s example, …Indians drew pictures and designs of their own, probably with little or no significance…”

photo of Dighton Rock, 1904

There is a hint of regret in that conclusion by Delabarre, and in more recent years Historians and Anthropologists have re-examined the idea that those pictographs on inscribed rocks around the Bay may have been carved long before European influence, and indeed may have been sites of sacred memory to the Native Americans. One scholar re-visiting that probability is the Anthropologist Kathleen Bragdon who has written of such inscribed rocks:

“It seems clear…that pictographs are strongly associated with shamanic practice and provide evidence for a long history of such practice in southeastern New England. Widespread “visual literacy” , and a generalized knowledge of the meaning of these signs…no doubt provide a source of shared understanding between otherwise separate polities, and underlay the practice of ritual as well”[6]

In the same volume on New England, Drake writes that there was earlier evidence that Native Americans in the region “were acquainted with sculpture”, and in some instances carved out “descriptive drawings on the bark of trees.”

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

In the various artifacts unearthed at locations around Rhode Island, we find that many are adorned with a carved or painted symbol. In an article of the Rhode Island Historical Magazine of October 1926, entitled “Unusual Indian Implements Found in Rhode Island”, Howard Chapin discusses a few new and surprising finds that included a number of soapstone effigies, pieces of pottery and adornments as well as a clay pipe carved in the image of a bird.

Despite what would seem some evidence to the contrary, Chapin writes that those pipes and pieces of pottery with “incised ornamental lines in diamond shaped patterns” is a “design which may have been due to contact with Europeans”. Likewise, a soapstone statue found at Neutaconkanut Hill, and effigies, including a face carved on a circular stone and another figure, both found near Warwick Pond were likely” made in theColonial period by Indians who had come in contact with European civilization and had seen figures made in Europe. The effigies all have a certain cast of countenance due tothe environment of the artisan, even though he received his general inspiration from European objects.”

It remains uncertain as to why historians of the time found it implausible that the Narragansett would be less “advanced” or culturally expressive than other indigenous peoples, yet Chapin notes that “Some consider that they were made by prehistoric tribes that preceded the Indians, who were found here by the whitemen.”

More recent finds studied by modern achaeologists, such as a similar face carved on the underside of a soapstone bowl found at Fields Point, and artifacts unearthed at Greene Farm and at burial sites carefully excavated from Burr’s Hill in Warren and others in Charlestown by teams of anthropologists Brown University, have been dated to at least 3000 to 3500 years ago. Meticulous examination of pottery, textiles,and amulets suggest that the Narragansett people created unique and meaningful symbols, and patterns in their manufacture of pottery, garments and other “accessories” long before the Europeans arrived.

All of this would suggest that the Sachems “signing” early deeds with like markings, demonstrates  a familiarity with symbols and their importance in ceremony.

We know that much later, in treaties with Colonial governors, the Mohawks, Senecas and Onondagas for example, sketched the likeness of the animal symbol for their Clan as their signatures, as on a 1701 land deed which holds five different symbols including a wolf and a turtle. A little more than a decade later, a treaty between settlers in New Hampshire and “Eastern Indians” included similar “signatures”

But what of these early documents and the apparent individualism of Narragansett “signatures”?  Narragansett leadership like other tribes was based upon a family hiearchy, a son or daughter generally assumed the role of Sachem upon the elder’s passing. What of the possibility that the major families among the Narragansett during the peak of their population had similar “signature” symbols to represent the family?  Canonicus would have known this information, and it is possible that the “signature” of bow and arrow used by the Uncle and Nephew may have been an icon developed from an earlier era, but in my research I have found no definitive way of knowing.

If one investigates the symbols as correlating to individuals names, we clearly find that Miantonomo’s symbol of the arrow could easily relate to “one who wages war”[7] as his name translates, but the elder Sachem Canonicus, whose name means “of the long place” (meaning Jamestown) the theory quickly dissolves.

We know that Canonicus was among the first Narragansett to encounter European visitors. He greeted Verazzano with his Grandfather Tashtasick  as a young boy. At the time of Williams’ purchase of Providence, he was known by the founder to be “four score yeares of age”.

Miantonomo, by the time of the sale of Narragansett lands would have had many an agreement with European traders. That the two Sachems “signed” trade agreements with the French, or Dutch Captains is another point of inquiry.  Of interest to this writer, is whether the signatures of the two sachems might truly be individualized, and further, adopted as a symbol in response to this European ritual of ceremony. In treating the agreements thus, we can also acknowledge that the Narragansett and other tribes reciprocated with the introduction of like rituals, the recitation of memory, for example, in both early, and later negotiations with the Europeans.

The first document known to hold an agreement between Europeans and Native Americans of the Northeast occurred on June 1, of 1629 when Samuel Godyn, an officer of the Dutch West India Company sent sailor Gillas Hossitt in a shallop  to the western shore of Delaware Bay to purchase land from the Indians. The Dutch by this time had already set up trading posts at Borenson Island and Fort Nassau. Hossitt met with a “full council of the Sickoneysinks”[8] and purchased from them a large tract of land that extended some thirty miles to the mouth of the Delaware Bay. A little more than a year later, two Sachems traveled with Dutch representatives to Manhattan, where in a deposition, they confirmed the deal. The following spring, twenty eight men under Hossitt arrived to establish the settlement of Swanendale.

Unfortunately, according to the authorative “Early American Indian Documents”[9],the signatures are missing from the deed, so we have no way of knowing what marks or symbols the Sikoneysinks might have used. As it was, the peace established, and the settlement, were short lived. Just six months after the agreement had been confirmed, a second Dutch expedition arrived to find Swanendale

“…well beset with palisades in place of breastworks, but it was almost burnt up. Found lying here and there the skulls and bones of our people whom they had killed, and the heads of the horses and cows which they had brought with them.”[10]

The Swedish also speculated in land and America in an attempt to capture some of the now lucrative fur trade in 1638. Although the Swedish venture was also to last but more than a few years, being essentially paid off by the Dutch to leave, a Swedish historian recounted the transaction:

“A deed was drawn up for the land thus purchased, This was written in Dutch, because no Swede was yet able to interpret the language of the heathen. The Indians subscribed their hands and marks. The writing was sent home to Sweden, to be preserved in the Royal Archives”[11]

In a deposition nearly fifty years later, three elderly Sachems who had been present at the original purchase, signed their testimony with three inverted X’s.

In 1648, six Sachems “over the district of country called Amenveruis “ signed an agreement to “declare well and truly to have sold to Arent Corsen, the Shuylkill and adjoining lands…”

On this document we clearly see that the marks of the Native Americans, with the exception perhaps of Mechecksouivebe and Quironkehouk, appear to be an imitation of European cursive writing in establishing, however fleeting, their own “signature”.

Photos of deed fascimiles from “Early American Indian Documents”

A later agreement with the Dutch in 1651 holds more distinctive markings, and the Sachem Sinquees has abandoned an imitation of cursive, to draw his “signature” like the other Sachems, in symbolic form.

Another separate deed with the Sachem Wappanghzewan demonstrates an even more elaborate “signature” composed of numerous symbols.

Yet, in contrast to these, another agreement, signed on June 7, 1659 includes the marks of sixteen representatives of the Delaware Nation, all of which, seem again, to be crude imitations of cursive writing.

And finally, a later deed of 1675 for the purchase of more  land “on the west side of the Delaware River and the Islands on the said river near the falls”, is signed in distinctive manner by three Sachems, including Nanneckos, who has clearly drawn an indigenous symbol as a his mark.

As we research northeastern treaties into the 18th century, we find the same dichotomy well into mid century, when some Sachems like Mohawk Hendrick Peters Theyanoguin had experience of at least some European schooling and signed documents with the printed initials of their name. It may be however, that the Narragansett Sachem Miantonomo was a precursor of those education Native Americans.

In Howard Chapin’s The Narragansett Sachems, the local historian provides once again, evidence that Miantonomo’s “signature” continued to evolve. By the time of a deed signed in 1642, the Sachem has clearly drawn letters from the English alphabet to signify his name: an inverted “M” perhaps and “O”, would indicate that the Narragansett had learned some association of sound with the letters of the language,  likely through his friendship and conversations with Roger Williams.

So what does this mean as to the adaptation and “acceptance “ of European importance placed upon an individual’s signature? It would seem that such acceptance or not was arbitrary, and that some Sachems placed more importance in the ceremony of the event, and that those whose marks were not associated with already long used symbols took more deliberate care in creating the symbol(s) that expressed not only a name, but an inkling of their own nature, their mark upon a page of history.

Jan-Feb. 2011

[1] Winslow, Edward “Journal, 1624”

[2] Williams, Roger “A Key to the Language of America”

[3] Wood, William “Goode News for New Englande”

[4] As cited in Howard Chapin’s “Documentary History of Rhode Island” pp 25

[5] Coddington, William Letter to Governor John Winthrop of December 9, 1639

[6] Bragdon, Kathleen J. “Native People of Southern New England 1500-1650” p210

[7] This, and other translations relating to Narragansett names and places are from “American Indian Place Names in Rhode Island Past and Present” by Frank Waabu O’Brien 2003

[8] Morison, Samuel Eliot “The Great Explorers”

[9] ed. by Kent. Vol 1, 1607-1789 Treaties and Laws

[10] ibid.

[11] Acrelius “Account of the Swedish Churches in New Sweden” 1769 pp 60-61


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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

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Plain Speaking:Native American Articulation on European Encroachment and its Consequences.

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Plain Speaking: Native American Articulation on European Encroachment and Its Consequences.

by Robert A. Geake

oft have I heard these Indians say These English will deliver us Of all that’s ours, our lands and lives In the end, they’ll bereave us.

Roger Williams

Native Americans from the time of Columbus’ errant landing have been recorded as having made their European visitors welcome, treating them with respect as they also expected to be treated, having a long history as a people in their native land. Accounts of early European encounters reflect this respect, as do many narratives, travel journals, and diaries of the pre-colonial period; representing also, the tremendous curiosity that Europeans had for the indigenous tribes of the new world.

This curiosity became more apparent with the publication of treaties with the English colonists. The words of Native American speakers were duly recorded, and while sometimes abbreviated or transmuted in translation, sometimes suspect to having been “improved” upon a printer’s tray; the overall narrative left by those Native Americans is one of concern for the land and for their people.

From the beginnings of European encroachment in North America, native peoples voiced their concern publicly and privately in council with sachems within the over forty tribes that covered the Eastern forests alone. As early as 1642, a Narragansett Sachem, and benefactor of Roger Williams named Miantonomo, told a gathering where a treaty with the Colony of Massachusetts was being debated :

“(O)ur (F)athers had plenty of deer and skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, and of turkies, and our coves full of fish and fowle. But these English have gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved.”

Roger Williams may have been thinking of his friend with the words he wrote that prefaced this essay. But Miantonomo was not alone in voicing his fear for the future of his people. What has come to light in researching this essay is not that the Sachem’s words were so prophetic, but that they were repeated again and again through subsequent councils and treaty ceremonies for the next two hundred and fifty years. Perhaps equally prophetic, is the fact that Miantonomo’s words went unheeded, though he’d paddled the treacherous waters of Long Island Sound to give the Montauks his advice. Furthermore, he was betrayed by some of those who’d attended the council.

Upon hearing of his capture during the Narragansett and Mohegan War two years later, the Puritan authorities instructed the Mohegans to rid them of troublesome Sachem. The Massachusetts Bay Colony obtained the treaty they wanted, as well as a sizeable portion of land that further drove natives from their homes. Miantonomo’s tribe, would send an Act of Submission to the English King Charles I, seeking protection from the New Englander’s who coveted their land. Some of his people would join the Wamapanoag grandson of the sachem who first befriended Roger Williams, known as King Philip, who  would  become the image of early Native resistance.

With the early European interest in Native societies, the narratives of these ceremonies, dry as they sometimes could be, became a kind of literature unto itself, chiefly because it gave the reading public in the Colonies and Great Britain, as well as France, Germany, and Spain, a glimpse into the true Native society through the words of Native speakers.

These treaties and narratives were among the most widely read literature of the Colonial period in both Britain and America. This led in effect, to the tragic symmetry of Native Americans losing their populations and their homeland, even as English born men ignorant of their plight fostered a growing admiration for the Indians simplified lifestyle, their civic equality and reverence for ceremony; as well as their boldness of argument, and eloquence of speech.

As Henry De Puy writes in the introduction to his A Bibliography of Native American Treaties with the English Colonies:

“ while some “reporters” were not “consciously intent” upon representing the Indian view, others, buoyed by the enlightenment and the openness these “new” societies offered, found “evidence of language as politically, as philosophically effective as any of those in Europe.”

De Puy’s exhaustive and invaluable bibliography shows the first surviving printed treaty to be from 1677. In a synopsis of each treaty, a growing awareness is reflected from the pages, an imbedding of Native culture into at these “ceremonies” with Europeans in which so much was at stake.

In the synopsis of the first treaty of Albany in 1690. De Puy notes:

“The object of the council seems to have been the offering of condolences for the massacre at Schenectady and to advise what measures might be taken.”

This ceremony, known as the “consolation of the dead” was considered essential to Native Americans before they would sit in any council. As Pham writes, “For them, it was unthinkable to sit down in council and begin talking while the “bloodstains” still lingered on the clothes of the negotiators.”[1]

This became one solemn ceremony that had its place in all subsequent treaty ceremonies, which later recorded the proceedings that followed “after the usual condolences.” The native practice of relating an oral history of earlier European encounters and agreements became common as well. The Indians were, in one reporter’s notes, “fond of memory”, and so the treaties are a kind of anthology of native voices; replete with an eloquence often voiced in desperation, a boldness of statement at the continuing encroachment upon native land and the bothersome affairs in which Europeans sought to involve the Indians.

The famous Pell Treaty

One of the first publisher’s of Indian treaties in America was Samuel Green of Boston who published the Propositions Made by the Sachems of the three Maquas Castles, to the Mayor, Alderman, and Community of the City of Albany in 1689. The interpreters for Mayor Pieter Schuyler and the “ten more gentlemen” are listed as Arnout and Hille, This edition was sold in the London Coffee House of Benjamin Harris. and within this treaty, we find recorded, one of the first recorded instances of misgivings that Native Americans might have concerning the issue of encroachment between two opposing European empires:

“ We were engaged in a Bloody war with the French, about three years ago, and were encouraged to Proceed, and no sooner were we well Entred, and got several Prisoners, but a Cessation came and Corlaer hindred us to proceed, and Demanded the Prisoners from us; we were Obedient and did deliver them, and laid down the Hatchet, which if we might have gone forward, then the French would not have been in that Capacity to do so much mischief as they do; But now we must dye; Such obstructions will Ruine us ;if we might have had our wills, we would have prevented their Planting, Sowing, and Reaping, and brought them low and mean; Nevertheless let us be steadfast and not take such measures again, let us go on briskly with the war…”[2]

A New York publisher named William Bradford, brought out editions of the subsequent Albany Treaties in 1694, 1696, and with the Propositions Made by the Five Nations of Indians in 1698, records again the voice of dissent to the encroaching European conflicts. The Indians present complained of attacks from the French and their Indian allies even after peace had been declared. The high prices of goods are rendering them poor, and most notably, the representatives took the opportunity to correct the Governor on past treaties and promises left unfulfilled.

A treaty printed the following year by the Greens of Boston gives witness to the contempt some government officials had for this ceremony, with the result being that the “Sachems and chief men of the eastern Indians leaving the conference” in a hasty, abrupt manner without taking leave, and left behind them their English colours.” Subsequent treaties published by Andrew Bradford in Philadelphia in 1721 and 1722, and the publication by Benjamin Eliot of Boston of the Conference with the Eastern Indians held in Falmouth in 1726, along with the later publication by the Greens of the Conference with Eastern Indians…in Casco Bay highlight the disparity between the ways that Colonial governments regarded the Indians, displaying a reverence and respect for the confederacy of the Six Nations, while further demoralizing the Eastern tribes who had long been decimated by disease and poverty. As de Puy writes in his summary of the 1732 conference:

“ One cannot read this treaty and not be struck with the differences between the methods used with Eastern Indians and the method followed by New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia with the Six Nations and kindred tribes. all these latter conferences were marked by great dignity and the following of set forms. No speech ever went unanswered and it was seldom answered the same day but only after taking time for deliberation. At Falmouth, Governor Belcher replied to the Indian speeches at once and pressed the Indians for immediate answers. They told him they did things only after deliberating among themselves, but it made no difference to the Governor, nor did he mark his answers with presents as the Indians did.”[3]

The young Franklin at his press. Courtesy sfi.edu

Benjamin Franklin was rather a latecomer to the printing of treaties, with his press bringing out the “Treaty of Friendship” in 1736, and advertising the publication in the Pennsylvania Gazette. A second treaty published in Pennsylvania by Franklin was later printed in London with an introduction to Indian History by Dr. John Fothergill.

It is Franklin’s treaties that have been quoted from most often by those scholars seeking to address Indian articulation, and with good reason. Franklin’s treaties were authenticated by the Native American speeches  translated by Conrad Weiser, considered the foremost white expert on Indian Languages of his time. He and Franklin often attended the ceremonies and worked together on the presentation of the folio editions that Franklin’s press brought out. Franklin would print out 13 treaties in folio form between 1736 and 1760, These were sold to a high end market of customers through booksellers after editions had been distributed to government officials. Cheaply printed editions sold well in coffee houses and book stalls both in America and Great Britain.

Franklin’s publication of the Albany Treaty in 1746 was translated into German by Christopher Saur, and by 1755, Gentleman’s Magazine had published Indian speeches from the Conference in Albany for it’s readers, the editor stating that

“ not only the sense of the Indians…but some strains of native eloquence, which might have done honor to Tully and Demosthenes.”

In his noteworthy introduction The Indian Treaties Published by Benjamin Franklin, reprinted by the Pennsylvania Historic society in 1938,

Charles Van Doren pointedly states that the treaties were printed to be as Government documents, but that dismisses Franklin’s shrewd assessment of an interest in the Native population of America, and his own growing awareness of the value of learning from native communities.

Franklin’s treaties made a celebrity of sorts of the sachem Canassatego. During a treaty ceremony held in 1742, he was a sent as the representative of the Six Nations, and while acknowledging the “league of friendship” which brought them together, this did not prevent him from speaking plainly before the white commissioners:

Representation of the meeting with Six Nations at the Ceremonial fire.

“We know our lands are now become more valuable; the white people think we do not know their value, but we are sensible that the land is everlasting, and the few goods we receive for it are soon worn out and gone….besides, we are not well used with respect to the Lands still unsold by us. Your people daily settle on these lands, and spoil our Hunting. We must insist on your removing them.”

In the Lancaster Treaty of 1744, Canassatego was again in the forefront of the Native speakers, reminding them of their place in these ceremonies:

Artist John Kahionhes Fadden’s interpretation of the Iriquois Chief addressing the Colonial leaders in Lancaster, PA.

“…we must tell you that long before One Hundred Years our ancestors came out of this very Ground, and their Children have remained here ever since. You came out of the Ground in a country that lies beyond the Seas, there you may have a just claim, but here you must allow us to be your elder Brethren and the Lands to belong to us long before you knew any thing of them.”

He extolled the whites to form a coalition much like the Five Nations had done:

“Our wise Forefathers established Unity and Amiy between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations.

We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore, whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.”

Despite the Pennsylvania Governor’s short sighted, but polite dismissal of the speech, Canassatego’s words reverberated with readers throughout the colonies and presaged our own bonding before the Revolution.

For the remainder of the eighteenth century, Canassatego was perhaps the most publicized Native American, with numerous descriptions and even a fictional account of his travels and accomplishments printed some years after his death in 1750. As Bruce E. Johansen notes in his essay on the sachem’s popular speech in Lancaster: “Carried by Benjamin Franklin’s fecund pen, Canassatego’s admonition of colonial union echoed throughout the colonies for most of the eighteenth century. Commissioners of the rebelling colonies cited Canassatego’s advice regarding colonial union from Franklin’s treaty account more than thirty years later as they sought alliance with the Iriquois against the English on the eve of the Revolutionary war.”[4]

Overshadowed by this legendary sachem’s words however, were the words of lesser voices who echoed the earlier misgivings and warnings from sachems like Miantonomo.

In response to the Governor of Virginia’s scurrilous claim of land promised in earlier correspondence, the sachem Tachanoontia replied tersely

“we have the right of Conquest, a Right too dearly purchased, and which cost us too much Blood, to give up without any Reason at all, as you say we have done at Albany…”

the sachem challenged the Governor

“ if you would let us see the Letter, and inform us who was the Interpreter, and whose names are put to that Letter…” and urges that

“ this Matter can easily be cleared up, we are anxious it should be done; for we are positive no such thing was ever mentioned to us at Onadage, nor any where else.”

Tachanootia was obliged to bring up another longstanding dispute, explaining to the Governor that affairs had become so urgent that

we cannot avoid complaining” , though he was hopeful that matters would be settled and justice prevail in the future. This dispute was one of boundaries, and again a continued encroachment upon Native land. The sachem explained:

“ After we left Albany, we brought our Road a great deal more to the west , that we might comply with your proposal; but, tho it was of your own making, your People never observed it, but came and lived on our side of the hill, which we don’t blame you, as you live at a great Distance, near the Seas, and cannot be thought to know what your People do in the Back-parts.”

The sachem acknowledged that this encroachment had caused some natives to harm the settler’s cattle, and that after a complaint was issued to the Governor,

“we, at his Request, altered the Road again, and brought it to the Foot of the Great Mountain, where it now is; and it is impossible for us to remove it any further to the West, those parts of the country being absolutely impassable by either Man or Beast. We had not been long in Use of this new Road before your People came, like Flocks of Birds, and sat down on both sides of it…”[5]

Another attendee of that summers conference was more blunt in telling the Governor that the Atlantic Ocean was God’s proof that the English belonged on the other side:

“The World at the first was made on the other Side of the Great Water different from what it is on this Side, as may be known by the different Colours of our Skin, and of our Flesh, and that which you call Justice may not be so amongst us….”

He also questioned the integrity of the English who sought yet another treaty:

“You know very well when the white people first came here they were poor, but now they have got our Lands, and are by them become rich and we are now poor; what little we have had for the land goes soon away, but the Land lasts forever.”[6]

By the time of the Seven Years War, tribes were often divided from each other and also from within, as the testimony of the “principle warrior” speaking at a hastily called meeting, hints at the growing generational divide within the Six Nations:

“When the Indians received the first message from the English, they thought the English and the French would fight with one another at Sea, and not suffer war to be made upon the Land.”

When the British told Nations that the French were attacking neighboring Indian Colonies and urged them to “ take up the hatchet” against the invaders, the speaker reminds those assembled that not everyone took the bait.

“The Old Men at Onondago…refused to do this, and would ahere to the Neutrality; and on declaring this, the English sent other Messengers again and again… at last, the young Indians, the Warriors, and Captains, consulted together, and resolved to take up the English hatchet against the will of their Old People, and to lay their Old People aside, as of no use but in time of peace.”

Resigned to this, the “Warrior” had called the meeting to ask that the Indians “be furnished with better weapons, such as will knock the French down”.[7]

In October of 1753, Franklin began his distinguished career as a diplomat by attending a treaty council at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At this treaty with the Iroquois and Ohio Indians (the Twigtees, Delawares, Shawnees, and Wyandots), Franklin absorbed the rich imagery and ideas of the Six Nations at close range[8]

No doubt as Franklin listened, he would recognize a familiar litany from the galleys he’d read through the years. This time however, he would hear the words in person.

Your people not only trade with us in our towns, but disperse themselves over a large and wide extended country, in which reside many nations…

The Governor of Virginia desires leave to build a strong house in Ohio, which came to the Ears of the Governor of Canada; and we suppose this caused him to invade our Country. We do not know his intent, because he speaks with two tongues…We desire that Pennsylvania and Virginia would at present forbear settling on our Lands, over the Allegheny Hills. we advise you rather to call your people back, on this side of the hills, lest damage should be done, and you think ill of us.”[9]

Franklin also heard of the toll that was being taken on the longstanding native economy.

“You have more traders than are necessary, and they spread themselves over our wide country…”

and that

“The English goods are sold at too dear a rate for us…” as well as one of the earliest articulations about the growing problem of alcoholism:

“Your traders now bring scarce any thing but rum and flour. The Rum ruins us…We never understood the trade was to be for whiskey and flour. We desire that it be forbidden, and none sold in Indian Country.”

that the traveling salesmen brought to the tribes:

“These wicked whiskey sellers, when they have once got the Indians in Liquor, make them sell their very clothes from their backs-in short, if this practice is continued, we must be inevitably ruined”

It was interesting to note in researching this essay, that within the preface to his important book Alcohol and Native Americans, Peter Mancall states that

the Indian population probably did not absorb enough alcohol to develop the

illnesses associated with alcoholism. Yet fifty years after Scarrooyady’s complaint, we find the words of the resistance leader Little Turtle, a sachem of the Miami tribe who for a time had led a formidable alliance which led to a costly battle for union troops.

In 1804 he had left the battles behind, and had seen his native lands ceded by the defeated remnants of his coalition. He addressed the problem of alcoholism before legislators in Ohio and Kentucky, urging them to pass laws restricting the trade of whiskey that had become so prevalent in Indian lands. He told the legislators that the whiskey traders had

“stripped the poor Indian of skins, guns, blankets, everything-while his squaw and the children dependent on him lay starving and shivering in the wigwam.”

According to Bruce E. Johansen, the states did nothing to stop the flow of whiskey into Indian territory, and that often, the liquor was “adulterated with other substances from chili powder to arsenic.”[10]

It may have been that Franklin, while working on his efforts of colonization and the framing of the Albany Plan, had felt that the legacy of principles and self-government might be all the Indians might leave for future generations. Like many idealistic founders, Franklin and others viewed the Native problem with more affection than their neighbors, who viewed the “Savages” as a remnant of a people left behind the march of progress into modern times.

To admire, and to a point romanticize the idealized lifestyle that the Native American once lived as did Franklin, Jefferson, and other founders, was also to soften the death knell for tribes that continued to suffer under government policies that bent toward favor of those expansionist interests.

When those speculators sought more land, they would often find “treaty Indians” to parley with, Native Americans who impoverished, or induced by alcohol, freely “sold” their lands without the consent of tribal leaders or their neighboring Indians.

As these interests effectively “boxed” in the Native Americans or pushed along their removal, voices of dissent grew shriller, and at times led to violence within the disputed territories.

In the Summer of 1756, during a gathering in Easton, Connecticut, it is Scarrooyady who addresses this growing concern:

Harken to what I am going to say: I desire, in the most solemn manner, that what I now relate is the truth. Abundance of Confusion, Ddisorder, and Distraction has arisen among the Indians, from people taking upon them to be Kings and Persons of Authority. In every tribe of Indians, there have been such pretenders, who have held treaties, sometimes publick, and sometimes in the bushes; sometimes what these people did came to be known, but frequently it remained in darkness…this bred, among the Indians great heart-burnings and quarrels, and I can asure you, that the present clouds do, in a great measure, owe their rise to this wild and irregular way of doing business.”

In a conference again in Easton, in November of that year, the speaker representing the Six Nations is Teedyuscung of the Delawares, who endeavored to” tell the Truth from the Bottom of my Heart”, and reminds Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor William Denny, that “ The times are not now as they were in the Days of our Grandfathers; then it was Peace, but now War and Distress… The King of England, and of France , have settled, or wrought this Land, so as to coop us up, as if in a Pen. Our foolish and ignorant young Men, when they saw the Proceeding of this Enemy, and the Things that were told them, believed them, and were persuaded by this false- hearted King, to strike our Brethren the English…but this is not the principal Cause; some Things that have passed in former Times, both in this and other Governments, were not well pleasing to the Indians; indeed they thought them wrong…”

When asked by the Governor to be more specific and to “speak his Mind freely and without any reserve”, the King can barely restrain his annoyance.

“ Brother, you have not so much Knowledge of Things, done in this Country, as others who have lived longer in it, being, but lately, come among us-I have not far to go for an Instance: This very Ground, that is under me (striking it with his Foot) was my Land and Inheritance, and is taken from me, by Fraud;….When I have sold Lands fairly, I look upon them to be really sold- a Bargain is a Bargain—Though I have sometimes had nothing for the Lands I have sold, but broken Pipes, or such Trifles…Yet, I think, I should not be ill used on this Account, by those very People, who have had such an advantage in their Purchases, nor be called a Fool for it. Indians are not such fools, as to bear this in their Minds…Now, although you have purchased our Lands from our forefathers on so reasonable Terms, yet, now at length, you will not allow us to cut a little Wood to make a fire, nay, hinder us from Hunting, the only Means left us of getting our Livelihood”

Unswayed by this argument, the Governor asks Teedyuscung what he meant by “Fraud”, and the Delaware replied:

“ When one Man had, formerly, Liberty to purchase Lands, and he took the deed from the Indians for it, and then dies; after his Death, the Children forge a Seed, like the true One, with the same Indian Names to it, and thereby, take Lands from the Indians, which they never sold-this is Fraud.”

The Sachem also referred to Lands sold fraudulently by Europeans to other Europeans in the territories, a further cause of strife outside the Native communities.

Several days later, after conferring with the lawyers in his company, Denny returned to the council with his answer, acknowledging Teedyuscungs words that

“ I have come lately among you;” but continuing: the Grievances you mention are of old Date. If former Indian Kings have, as you say, sometimes sold more Land, than they had a right to sell, in so doing they injured us, and we, as well as you, have Cause to complain of them- but sometimes, though they sold no more that their own, they sold it fairly, and it was honestly paid for, by the English; yet when the Indian Children grow up, they may forget that their Fathers sold the Lands, and divided the Goods; and some evil Spirit, or bad Man, that loves to make Mischief, may tell them,

the Land is still yours; your Fathers never sold it; the Writings are false. Moreover, many people, both English and Indians, concerned in the former Purchase of Lands, are now dead; and as you do not understand Writings and Records, it may be hard for me to satisfy you, of the Truth…”

Such a condescending response was not tempered by the Lieutenant Governor declaring that “you shall have immediate Satisfaction, whether it be justly due to you or not”, that “satisfaction” being more in the way of “trifles”, which in this case consisted of pieces of cloth, ribbon, fish hooks, kettles, shirts, hats, and a handful of coats as well as 100 pounds of gunpowder and 200 pounds of lead shot.

As events drew the Europeans into their respective Revolutions, native resistance grew as well. Some tribes chose sides while others remained neutral and were further ostracized by speculators still greedy for Land, displaced by the war, or voluntarily abandoned the lands of their ancestors and merged with friendly tribes living within the fringe of those territories.

Native resistance drew forth some strong leaders who left a further legacy in later narratives within treaties or eyewitness accounts. These included Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket as he came to be known for the British redcoat he was prone to wear on ceremonial occasions.

His oratory was known for its bluntness and sharpness of tongue. At a meeting arranged by the victorious Americans at Fort Niagara after the war, when presented an American flag by Captain James Bruff, the Seneca chief responded in their meeting two days later:

Brother, you have presented us a flag of your nation and hope that the American stars may enlighten the 6 Nations and their western brethren. We accept the flag but must remark that our chiefs have never been much enlightened by them, except when you have burnt our towns where they have been flying….”

It is also within this speech that Sagoyewatha uttered his famous assessment of these new Americans:

“You are a cunning people without sincerity  and not to be trusted…”

The Shawnee Native Tecumsah was another resistance leader who sought to ally the Indians against the continued encroachment that surged with the burgeoning of the new nation’s economy and growth at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In a rallying cry to an assembled gathering of Shawnees, Delawares, Ottawas, Ojibwas, Kickapoos, and Wyandots in 1805, Tecumsah asks

the gathering:

“ Where today are the Pequots? where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun…”[11]

October-November 2009


Calloway, Colin G.: The World Turned Upside Down Bedford Books 1994

Du Puy, Henry: A Bibliography of Native American Treaties with the English Colonies New York Historical Society 1922

Franklin, Benjamin: Indian Treaties printed by Ben Franklin Pennsylvania Historic soc. 1938 Intro. by Carl Van Doren

Johansen, Bruce E.: The Native Peoples of North America

Mann, Barbara Alice: Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands Greenwood Press 2001

[1] Pham “English Colonial Treaties With American Indians”

[2] Propositions Made by The Sachems…pp 3-4

[3] De Puy p14

[4] Johansen, Bruce E. “By Your Observing the Methods Our Wise Forefathers Have Taken” from Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands edited by Barbara Alice Mann.

[5] Franklin, Treaties…pp 56-57

[6] Ibid pp 63-64

[7] Treaties…pp108

[8] Johansen, Bruce E. “By your Observing…” p 94

[9] Franklin’s “Treaties With The Indians” pp 101

[10] Johansen, Bruce E. “The Native Peoples of North America”

[11] Johansen, Bruce E. “The Native Peoples of North America”

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