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Society in New England Puritans & Pilgrims

The Puritans and the Indians: Turns Out, the Wilderness Isn't So Empty After All

The Puritans initially thought of their journey into the New World as an "errand into the wilderness" and it continued to be described as such by many prominent historians for centuries thereafter. Yet for all the novelty of the Puritans as the second group of Europeans to attempt a very precarious settlement on the North American continent, and despite the fact that it probably seemed practically empty to people coming from the densely populated Western Europe, it wasn't empty at all. The notion of Colonial America as a "wilderness" tends to obscure the very real presence of some one hundred thousand Native Americans in multiple tribes within the New England area alone.

Mutual Suffering in the Beginning

When the Pilgrims arrived on the Massachusetts coast in 1620, it is true that they found a land of very sparse Indian population. But what the Pilgrims assumed had always been unsettled territory was, in fact, a country that had only just been depopulated, as the local Indians had been decimated by a smallpox epidemic introduced by European traders or fishermen. The few Indian survivors of this disease-induced holocaust may have been more willing to cooperate with the newcomers than they would have been if their own societies had remained intact. Without the assistance of Native Americans like Squanto, the Pilgrims' initial settlement would have died out completely, for the settlers lacked basic agricultural know-how. Even with Squanto's invaluable advice on how to fish and plant corn, half of the Plymouth colonists died during the first winter.


The surviving Indians began to trade animal furs to the English in exchange for European commodities such as shell beads or disks that were threaded into strings to make the highly prized wampum. Wampum was an Algonquian term meaning "white string of beads"; these strings (or belts) could be used like currency and were considered sacred. They often contained pictograph designs that told a story or symbolized the unity of tribal confederations. The wampum belts were ceremoniously exchanged during serious occasions, such as the signing of a peace treaty.

Anglo-indigenous encounters increased as missionaries attempted to infiltrate the tribal structures and convert their members to Christianity. The French had been embarking on these conversion missions long before the English, and the English never enjoyed the success of their French or Spanish counterparts. The missionaries, such as Daniel Gookin, established "praying towns" throughout the region, about fourteen of which housed some 1,100 Indians by 1674. These towns sought to inculcate the Christian Indians with all the values and customs of the English Puritans, with mixed success. In many cases, the converted Indians cultivated the traditional staples of English agriculture erected fences, and raised livestock. Yet many of the residents of the Praying Towns clung to traditional ways, opting for the warmer and more portable wigwams rather than drafty English-style houses. In some cases, they planted apple orchards but drank the cider instead of trading it for profit. Often these supposedly converted Christians actually displayed evidence of a hybridized or syncretic faith, composed of elements both Christian and traditional.

Conversion and Warfare

The English immigrants sought to convert the Indians to their own religion, but despite their efforts, they actually met with little success in relation to the total Native American population. In places like the inland Wachusett region during the 1640s (which encompasses modern-day Worcester County and the northwestern corner of Middlesex County), both the English and the Indians sought a peaceful coexistence. Protestant missionaries sought to "civilize" the local Nipmuc people, with the well-meaning intention of bringing them into full membership in town society. Yet European colonization led to conflicts that led to war by the close of the century, and in some places, long before that.

Pequot War

The Indians of New England had little concept of cross-tribal solidarity; prior to the arrival of the whites, uniting on the basis of a broad indigenous identity was neither necessary nor obvious to these diverse tribes, each of which had developed their own traditions, cultures, and ways of life. Even after the colonists began encroaching on their land and hunting grounds, the Native Americans could not have known that the whites would keep multiplying and steadily occupying more and more land.

Indian groups were as likely to join with whites to fight other Indians as they were to form some kind of pan-Indian, anticolonial resistance. For example, in 1637, Narragansett allies assisted a group of soldiers from Connecticut and Massachusetts. The settlers sought revenge for the murder of several of their Connecticut brethren at the hands of the powerful Pequot tribe, which controlled the fur trade in southern New England and exacted tribute from the smaller tribes of the area. The soldiers and their Indian allies surrounded the main Pequot village in Mystic, Connecticut, and burned it to the ground. They killed anyone who tried to escape, taking the lives of over 500 men, women, and children in all. The war that ensued lasted only a few months; it was a genocidal effort that saw the few remaining Pequots sold into slavery in the Caribbean. The ensuing peace treaty at Hartford (1638) stipulated that the Pequot name be stricken from the historical record, thus demonstrating the long-standing appreciation for the power of history. The Pequot War opened the Connecticut River Valley up to white settlement, but also provided other local Indians with a potent warning of the perils of the colonists' expanding power, their ferocious tactics, and their rapidly multiplying numbers.


The colonists failed in their effort to erase the Pequots from history. The story of the massacre has been preserved by historians and eyewitness accounts, as well as illustrations of the event. And, in a highly unusual postscript, descendents of the Pequots now run Foxwoods, a very profitable casino in Connecticut that opened in 1992. The casino is the largest in the world, covering the space of some 30 football fields, and it attracts over 40,000 visitors a day; the tribe was granted a monopoly on casino gambling in Connecticut in return for sharing a portion of their proceeds with the state. The resulting windfall—$125,000 dollars an hour; $3 million a day; $1.5 billion a year—made a handful of surviving Pequots enormously wealthy, and they used a portion of the proceeds to erect a museum that tells the tale of their tribal history, culture, and persecution.

Metacom's War

In 1675, a pan-Indian alliance destroyed inland settlements in order to reassert their autonomy and to reclaim lost territory. The conflict, known as Metacom's or King Philip's War, would delay English colonization for a decade. It was the most violent conflict of the century in New England.

The immediate cause of the conflict began with the murder of John Sassamon, a praying Indian who could read and write and who occupied a precarious grey area between the cultural worlds of Native Americans and whites. Many on both sides suspected him of being a spy for the other group. He certainly switched sides often enough; Sassamon had attended Harvard, left Christianity during a period when he was serving Metacom, and then returned to his religion again. He had tried to warn the Plymouth governor of an impending Native American attack when he was killed, but no one is certain about exactly how he died.

In retribution for Sassamon's murder, the officials of Plymouth colony executed three Wampanoags whom they held responsible. The case against the accused murderers was actually quite flimsy, but this did not prevent their conviction and subsequent death sentence. At their hanging, the hanging rope of one of the Wampanoags actually snapped and saved him. Instead of viewing this as divine intervention, however, the Puritans simply killed him anyway. In response to its ultimate verdict, King Philip (or Metacom, as he was known to his own people), chief of the Wampanoag tribe, built an alliance among the remaining tribes of central and southern New England, including his own Wampanoags and the Narragansetts, Nipmucks, and Mohegans. One surviving Pequot Indian remembered that Metacom warned them: "Brothers, these people from the unknown world will cut down our groves, spoil our hunting and planting grounds, and drive us and our children from the graves of our fathers, and our council fires, and enslave our women and children."9 Metacom's alliance retaliated against Wampanoags' execution by attacking and burning colonial settlements in both Plymouth and Massachusetts colony; in total, about half of New England's 90 or so towns were affected. Twelve towns in Massachusetts were completely destroyed. A series of mounting reprisals and atrocities followed on both sides; ultimately, as many as 20,000 people were ultimately killed.

As evidenced by Metacom's (attributed) speech above, several factors beyond the Sassamon murder set the context for King Philip's War. Metacom's father, Massasoit, had helped the original Pilgrims and was a Plymouth ally. But when he died in 1660, relations soured between the colonial leaders and the Wampanoag sachems, whom the whites treated somewhat high-handedly and even abusively. Whites had been encroaching on Native American land in New England for some time, and unlike most other regions except the Chesapeake, they now outnumbered the Native Americans. At first, Metacom's alliance worked. Settlers fled toward the coast, vacating the lands that had been a central source of the conflict. Then in the summer of 1676, the white settlers counterattacked along with some of their own indigenous allies. They broke the power and momentum of Metacom's united forces.

The War's Result and Its Legacy

The English were ultimately victorious and forced the Indians to relocate, transferring their lands to the Bay Colony. They destroyed the main Narragansett village in Rhode Island. Metacom was killed and his wife and son were captured and sold into slavery. Tribes in the conflict who did not relocate to Canada, New York, or further west either succumbed to disease, surrendered, or splintered out into a few straggling members. Some were forced to resettle in villages that the white settlers monitored. Even the converted Indians in praying towns were relocated to Deer Island in Boston Harbor. They were told that this relocation was for their protection, but many of them subsequently died from disease and starvation. Long after 1676, sporadic conflicts broke out to the north, in Maine and New Hampshire. For the next fifty years, the English, Indians, and French battled one another intermittently. War and colonization became interlinking concepts in the minds of New Englanders. This was an ominous turning point in the history of New England and the broader legacy of Anglo-Indian relations: as historian Colin G. Calloway put it, "After King Philip's War (1675-76)... Indians and Europeans often expected their relationships to be violent, and so, often, they were."10 The image of Indians as bloodthirsty savages became affixed in the European mind.

Views of the Land

From the European perspective, a clear demarcation existed between settled land and wilderness, between civilization and nature, and the former was deemed superior and more righteous. In European culture, man earned title to land by transforming it from wilderness and making it work; most Europeans didn't recognize the ways Indians had transformed the land (or the nature of their relationship with the land) and thus believed they had no legitimate claim to it. There were only a handful of exceptions to this general outlook, Roger Williams among them. The rest of the Puritans often conceived of the wilderness as a physical form of hell. Puritan leaders such as John Winthrop did not believe that Indians held any entitlement or claim to the land. To the white settlers, any part of the globe was fair game, so long as it had not been legitimately possessed by another man before they arrived; and even then, it might be gained through warfare. Indians were deemed undeserving of any claims to the land because they did not have cattle or other means of subduing the terrain for cultivation. Because the Europeans considered their system of hierarchical social organization and technology superior to that of the Indians, they claimed precedence for themselves.

Native American perspectives

No such divide between civilization and nature existed for Indians such as the Algonquians of the Northeast, who saw spiritual properties in the animals and objects that the Europeans deemed inanimate. Algonquians believed that a figure named GlusKap (or GlusKabe) had given the world its present form and was responsible for the evolution of animals into the Indians over time. He battled the forces of social disorder and chaos that existed beyond the indigenous community. These forces—they have multiple potential interpretations, from white settlers to environmental disasters to the forces of evil spirits—sought to engulf the Indian community and its traditions and to monopolize precious resources. For these communities, nature and the spirit world commingled and converged in myriad ways that made the sounds, raindrops, animals, and the landscape come alive; humans were not superior to nature in this belief system, they were simply another part of it. Tribes such as the Nashaways of the Wachusett region of inland Massachusetts passed down such legends and oral storytelling traditions so that future generations could understand and appreciate their traditional beliefs and values. Many tribes also transformed the land to make it more productive, but they did it in different ways than the Europeans. They cut down trees and burned areas of forest to create space for hunting and open fields. They also set fires to eliminate the underbrush (this made it easier to track game and gather nuts and berries) and to replenish the soil. They cultivated crops such as beans, pumpkins, and corn and utilized a technique of planting seeds in regularly spaced mounds. This allowed the plant roots to intertwine below ground, making it harder for birds and wind to uproot younger tendrils.

Commonalities and Exceptions

There is no question that Indian and English societies approached one another from a considerable social, religious, and cultural divide. For the most part, scholars have attempted to trace the many differences between these two groups by citing characteristics common to each of them, as we have done here. Yet these distinctions should not be carried too far; for all of their differences, and for all of the seemingly obvious similarities among Native Americans and the white settlers, respectively, throughout the colonial period some tribes allied with the whites in battle against other tribes. This did not necessarily mean that certain Indian groups thought they had more in common with the settlers than with other Native Americans, but these alliances indicate that both whites and some Indian groups were at least willing to overlook or put aside their differences to form mutually advantageous relationships. Occasionally whites would disagree among themselves on Indian relations matters. Roger Williams, himself a maverick in the conformist atmosphere of seventeenth-century New England, learned several Indian languages and argued that the king could not grant land which already belonged to the Native Americans. He argued that towns must purchase the land of their future site. Others, such as John Winthrop, recognized the advantages of purchasing rather than seizing land. Yet Winthrop also demanded that such purchases include a provision for Indian submission to English authority and a provision for payment of tribute to the colonists.

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