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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Utopian

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Activities: Context Activities

Souls in Need of Salvation, Satan's Agents, or Brothers in Peace?:
English Settlers' Views of Native Americans

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[2583] The First Seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629), courtesy of the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, Public Records Division.
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When English immigrants set sail for the "New World" in the early seventeenth century, many of them believed that they would be settling what William Bradford called "a vast and unpeopled country." When they arrived in America, however, they found not an empty wilderness but a developed region with a large population of Native Americans. Despite tendencies to view "the Indians" as a monolithic group, it is important to realize that Native American culture was extremely diverse; different tribes spoke different languages, created different political structures, and developed distinct cultural practices. Often, they fought among themselves over rights to land and game. Native American communities developed different strategies for dealing with the European settlers who began descending on their land in the seventeenth century: some opted to resist, some fled their traditional homelands, some sought accommodation, and some struck compromises. Cultural misunderstandings and intolerance plagued Indian-European relations, hampering negotiations and sometimes leading to violent confrontations.

Many Puritans who arrived in New England were convinced that the Indians they encountered represented remnants of the "Lost Tribes of Israel," a part of God's nation of chosen people that had gone astray and needed to be converted and saved. This belief was in fact one of the central premises of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter: its colonial seal featured a picture of a Native American uttering the words "Come over and help us." Such imagery enabled the Puritan fantasy that Native Americans were voluntarily inviting them to North America, where they were anxiously awaiting the colonists' charity and spiritual instruction. In practice, Native Americans found that Puritan conversion practices could be extremely coercive and culturally insensitive. For Indians, accepting Christianity generally involved giving up their language, severing kinship ties with other Indians who had not been "saved," and abandoning their traditional homes to live in European-style "Praying Towns." Many Native Americans were understandably hostile toward Puritan missionaries, perceiving their work as a threat to Indian social bonds and cultural practices. Except for the persistence of a few zealous missionaries like John Eliot, Puritans' enthusiasm for proselytizing among the natives had waned by the late seventeenth century.

Puritan-Indian relations were further troubled by recurring disagreements over land use and land rights. Part of the problem stemmed from the groups' fundamentally different attitudes toward land ownership. To the New England Indians, "selling" land did not mean granting exclusive, perpetual ownership to the buyer; instead, it involved accepting a new neighbor and sharing resources. The Puritans, on the other hand, were committed to the notion of private property and expected Native Americans immediately and permanently to vacate their land upon its sale. Some Puritan settlers felt that they were entitled to Native American land because, in their view, the Indians were squandering the land's potential by failing to enclose it or to farm it in the English manner. The problems inevitably caused by these radically different concepts of land use and land ownership were compounded by the Puritans' increasing conviction that the Indians' claims were invalid anyway, because God intended to bestow New England upon the English. By 1676, the minister Increase Mather wrote confidently about the Puritans' property rights over "the Heathen People amongst whom we live, and whose Land the Lord God of our Fathers has given to us for a rightful possession."

As Mather's rhetoric makes clear, many Puritans saw Indians less as "the Lost Tribes" than as irredeemable "heathens." Shifting the biblical context through which they understood the Native Americans, Puritans likened them to the Canaanites or Amalekites, heathen peoples whom God sent as a scourge to test the nation of Israel and whose extermination was necessary for the fulfillment of his divine plan. This antagonistic perspective on the part of the Puritans enabled what critic Richard Slotkin calls "a new mythology of Puritan-Indian relationships in which war and exorcism replaced tutelage and conversion." As early as 1636, the English settlers engaged in a genocidal campaign to wipe out the Pequot tribe. In Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford described the carnage wrought by the Puritans as a "sweet sacrifice" and "gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully." Captain John Underhill also chronicled the Pequot War in his News from America (1638), providing a sketch of the Puritans, along with their Narragansett allies, encircling and destroying a Pequot village. Puritan-Indian hostilities erupted again in 1676 with King Philip's War, one of the most devastating wars (in proportion to population) in American history. Former Puritan allies like the Narragansetts banded together with other Algonquian tribes to oppose the English. In her narrative of captivity among the Indians during King Philip's War, Mary Rowlandson frequently employs standard Puritan demonizing rhetoric, calling her captors "infidels," "hell-hounds," and "savages," and insisting that they are a "scourge" sent by God to chasten and test his chosen people. She reserves a special hatred for Native Americans who had experienced Christian conversion (the "Praying Indians"); in her view, they were nothing but hypocrites. Still, tensions and contradictions mark Rowlandson's narrative; she comes to see some Indians as individuals capable of humanity and charity, thus complicating her black-and-white worldview. English victories in both the Pequot War and King Philip's war, combined with the ravaging effects of European diseases like smallpox, resulted in the depletion of Native American populations in New England and enabled Puritans to seize most remaining Indian lands in the region by the early eighteenth century.

Unfortunately, we do not have extensive records of Indian/Puritan encounters during the seventeenth century composed from a Native American perspective. But some written accounts, pictographs, archaeological evidence, and transcriptions of oral traditions survive to give an indication of what Indians thought about the English settlers in New England. Some of the most interesting records remain from Natick, an Indian "Praying Town" east of Boston. Established in 1651 by missionary John Eliot, Natick consisted of English-style homesteads, three streets, a bridge across the Charles River, as well as a meetinghouse, which housed a school, and the governing body. The Indian residents of Natick were taught to read and write in their native language of Massachuset, using letters from the Roman alphabet. In 1988, anthropologists Kathleen Bragdon and Goddard Ives translated the town records from Natick into English and published an accompanying grammar for the Massachuset language under the title Native Writings in Massachusett. Our understanding of native lives and the Algonquian view of conquest has been further enhanced by Williams Simmons's ground-breaking collection of Algonquian oral tradition from southeastern New England, The Spirit of New England Tribes, and Indian Converts (1727), and Experience Mayhew's biographies of four generations of Wampanoag men, women, and children from the island of Martha's Vineyard. These documents suggest that Indian converts often adapted Christianity to suit their needs and to face the trials of conquest, rather than merely being transformed into "Red Puritans."

In the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn and the Quakers demonstrated that Indian-European relations did not have to be based on intolerance or violence toward native cultures. Initiating contact with the Delaware in his "Letter to the Lenni Lenape," Penn showed respect for Native American culture, pledged to treat Native Americans as equals, and acknowledged their land rights. The Pennsylvania seal provides a telling contrast to the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, revealing important differences in the two colonies' attitudes toward and treatment of Native Americans. Rather than depicting the Indians as inferior beings in need of help, the Pennsylvania seal offers an image of harmony and equality: a Native American and a European share a pipe, while the motto proclaims "Let us look to the Most High who blessed our fathers with peace." Under Penn's leadership, the Quakers were scrupulously fair in their negotiations of land deals with Native Americans. The wampum belt featured in the archive, which functioned within Delaware culture as a kind of land deed, testifies to the Quakers' willingness to participate in and respect Indian cultural practices. As a result of their commitment to tolerance and mutual respect, the Quakers and Indians lived in peace in Pennsylvania for over half a century.

  1. Comprehension: How did the Puritans' understanding of the Bible shape their attitudes toward Native Americans? How did Quaker theology shape their relationship with Native Americans? How did the theology of Native American Christians affect their attitudes towards whites?

  2. Comprehension: How did Puritans justify seizing Native American land? Can you find examples of these justifications in any of the texts covered in this unit (Bradford, Rowlandson, Knight, Winthrop, or Occom, for example)?

  3. Context: What does John Underhill's sketch of the Puritan attack on the Pequot community tell you about the Puritans' method of war or their feelings about that particular battle? How does the presence of Narragansett allies (the outer ring of figures in the sketch) complicate our understanding of the battle? How does the sketch compare with the written account of the Pequot War William Bradford gives in Of Plymouth Plantation?

  4. Context: Samson Occom composed his "Short Narrative" almost a century after the conclusion of King Philip's War. How do white attitudes toward Native Americans seem to have changed by his time? How do they seem similar? How does his narrative challenge whites' ideas about Indians?

  5. Exploration: How do later eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century romanticized visions of Native Americans as "noble savages" relate to Puritan and Quaker ideas about Native Americans? Why do you think the "noble savage" concept became so popular later in American history?

  6. Exploration: How do white Americans' attitudes toward Native Americans through the centuries compare to their attitudes toward other non-white groups?
[1210] John Underhill, The Figure of the Indians' Fort or Palizado in New England and the Manner of Destroying It by Captayne Underhill and Captayne Mason (1638),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-32055].
In 1636, the English settlers engaged in a campaign to wipe out the Pequot tribe. Captain John Underhill chronicled the Pequot War in his News from America (1638), providing this sketch of the Puritans, along with their Narragansett allies, encircling and destroying a Pequot village.

[2583] The First Seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629),
courtesy of the Massachusetts Bay Secretary of the Commonwealth, Public Records Division.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony's official seal features a Native American uttering the words "Come over and help us." The "help" requested is the gift of the Gospel, as explained by John Winthrop in his "Reasons to be considered for iustifieing the undertakers of the intended Plantation in New England."

[2825] William Hubbard, The Present State of New England. Being a Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England (1677),
courtesy of Special Collections, the University of Pennsylvania Library.
Like Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, this history of King Philip's War views Native Americans as agents of Satan who have been sent to test the Puritans. It includes one of the early maps of New England.

[2850] Brass medal given Christian Indians as a reward for service,
courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, N38319/N38320. Photo by Carmelo Guadagno.
Christianized Indians fought on both the Native and the British sides in King Philip's War, which led to confusion on the part of colonists as to who was a "good" and who was a "bad" Indian. Brass medals were awarded to those who served the British.

[5054] Gleasons Pictorial, In Honor of the Birthday of Governor John Winthrop, Born June 12th, 1587 (1854),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-120506].
Woodprint engraving of head-and-shoulders portrait of Governor John Winthrop, flanked by statues of a Native American (left) and a pilgrim (right) and with a homestead below.

[5214] Iroquois Wampum belt,
courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Wampum, usually found in bead form and made from Quahog shells found along the southern New England coast, was an important item for exchange and political dealings among Indians; after European settlement, it came to resemble a type of currency.

[6326] Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving 1621 (1932),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15915].
The Thanksgiving holiday has gained mythic status through representations of the event as a critical occasion of the Plymouth colony.

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