When Massachusetts Nearly Destroyed Itself

The Pequot War was devastating. Puritan armies destroyed Indian villages and all but exterminated the Pequots and the colonists seized native lands.

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By the mid-1630s, the English and Native populations were roughly equal in number and power. Parity meant all sides had a practical interest in peaceful coexistence, at least in the real experiences of daily life. The first generation of settlers could show little more force than occasional raids on Indian villages, burning the cornfield here and there, and other small-scale acts of violence. Waves of new settlers throughout the 1630s tipped the frontier balance of power toward the Puritans. John Oldham, a wealthy local fur merchant, patiently traded while the New English settled the frontier and hedged in the natives. He did not share the Puritan missionary mentality, but his death helped inaugurate the Pequot War and consolidate Puritan control of the coast.

Further Readings/References:

Bourne, Russell. The Red King’s Rebellion: Racial Politics in New England, 1675-1678. New York: Oxford University Press. 1990.

John Easton, A Narrative of the Causes Which Led to Philip’s Indian War, Albany: J. Munsell. 1858. Originally Published: 1675.

Nash, Gary. Red, White, and Black: The People of Early North America. Upper Saddle River (NJ): Prentice-Hall. Fifth Edition. 2006.

Anthony Comegna: And God blessed them, and God said unto them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.” For the 17th century Anglican church, this verse from Genesis implied English nationalism and imperial war against Catholic France and Spain, [00:00:30] but according to their Puritan cousins in New England, God commanded them to ban together in ideological, political, and military conspiracies to dominate the globe. The Puritan’s mission was to conquer the Earth and all peoples upon it. This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
[00:01:00] History did not conform to Puritan theory. Today, we will investigate Massachusetts’ two great Indian wars, the Pequot War and what is called King Phillip’s War. As part of their ongoing mission to subdue and dominate, New England’s Puritan divines first secured a corporate charter endowed with chunks of King Charles the First’s personal sovereign authority. It was their ticket to playing missionary and advance the Millennium. [00:01:30] But for the Puritans’ New Israel to flourish and multiply, the Indians’ New Canaan must be destroyed. Disease blazed the first trails. Natives died in huge numbers, and receded from the coast for two generations before European settlement, leaving behind ghost towns and bones. When the Puritans expanded from Plymouth and Boston, they praised God for having both cleared the land of Satan’s minions, and for leaving its productive capacity [00:02:00] intact.
By the mid-1630s, the English and native populations were roughly equal in number and power. Parity meant all sides had a practical interest in peaceful coexistence, at least in the real experiences of daily life. The governor, the divines, the freemen, the ministers, the great sachem, the war-hungry braves, they may all have wanted conflict at one time or another for a variety of personal reasons, but the great mass of people in New England [00:02:30] practiced peace and trade. The first generation of settlers could show little more force than occasional raids on Indian villages, burning the cornfield here and there, and other small-scale acts of violence. Waves of new settlers throughout the 1630s tipped the frontier balance of power towards the Puritans, but the Bay was still incapable of truly projecting power.
Hard-nosed, practical traders flourished, where militant Millennialists stood still. John [00:03:00] Oldham, a wealthy, local fur merchant, patiently traded while the New English settled the frontier and hedged in the natives. After inserting himself into local conflicts between the Narragansetts and the Pequots, Oldham anchored off Block Island to weather a small storm. On July 20th, 1636, a company of Block Islanders subject to the Pequots boarded Oldham’s ship, beheaded him, killed his crew, and captured his two sons. Oldham [00:03:30] represented the ad hoc extension of English power across the frontier. He had no love for the Bay’s Puritan leadership, and personally helped settle the first Connecticut river towns. He did not share the Puritan missionary mentality, but his death helped inaugurate the Pequot War and consolidate Puritan control of the coast.
New settlers also meant new and troubling ideas in the colony. The divines ejected Roger Williams in the spring of 1636 for suggesting [00:04:00] that the colony’s charter did not empower it to confiscate or conquer native territory. Williams fled to Rhode Island, which he purchased from indigenous peoples. After Oldham’s murder, Puritan leadership clamored for war and gathered their forces to attack Block Island in the fall of 1636. Williams struggled fruitlessly to maintain the peace, a part he played for the rest of his life. When Anne Hutchinson suggested that Christians need not follow the laws of earthly governments, [00:04:30] her antinomian followers began ignoring compulsory military service. Governor John Winthrop rooted out the Hutchinsonians, ensured a steady flow of soldiers, and coordinated a campaign against the Pequots. Conquering the domestic spirit of antinomianism was a necessary first step to conquering broader New England.
The Pequot War was devastating. English destroyed Indian villages and murdered indiscriminately. Pequots retaliated in kind. [00:05:00] Puritan armies all but exterminated the Pequots, and the colonists seized native lands. Uneasy peace once again prevailed. The great entrenched strength of natives enticed New English to trade rather than battle. The Pequot War provided temporary relief of the Puritans’ missionary angst, a trial by fire for New Israel’s right to exist and expand. Triumphant over the Pequots, Massachusetts Bay moved to consolidate the other colonies under its own leadership [00:05:30] through the Confederation of New England. In old England, meanwhile, Parliament and king went to war with one another for nearly a full generation.
The divines consolidated New England, but Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth forces executed the king. For a brief period in the 1650s, it seemed to many in Massachusetts that their city on the hill was back in England after all, but Cromwell died, and his regime of terror [00:06:00] collapsed. The Restoration monarch Charles II renewed commitments to religious toleration in Rhode Island, and determined to investigate the causes of unrest and disloyalty across his colonial possessions. To Charles, the Roger Williamses of the realm promoted stability and trade. The Puritan fanatics were loose cannons aimed at powder kegs.
A renewed, vigorous trade in furs encouraged over-trapping, and beaver populations declined across New England [00:06:30] in the 1650s and 1660s. The trade suffered, and indigenous trappers suffered. As native fortunes waned, so to did their wider economic impact. Boston traders moved out of the wampum market and shifted to European coins. As Massachusetts Bay leadership struggled to maintain chartered independence from King Charles II, Native Americans saw each New English town as an aggressive step into foreign soil. Native sachems resented their subordinated [00:07:00] position in the evolving Atlantic world. Four decades of economic pressure, psychological turmoil, and political jockeying erupted into a general rebellion of native tribes against any and all English encroachment. Though the conflict has been called King Philip’s War, Philip, or Metacomet, was only one sachem among many mobilized to maintain their independent existence.
Rhode Island governor and Quaker peacemaker John [00:07:30] Easton described the outbreak of hostilities in 1674 with the mysterious murder of a praying or Christian Indian named John Sassamon and a supposedly fake will leaving Philip new land claims. Plymouth Colony was eager to tie Philip to the murder, but could only produce a few supposed conspirators and eye-witnesses. Puritans reported that, as the accused walked by, Sassamon’s corpse spouted blood, an otherworldly sign of their guilt.
Speaker 2: [00:08:00] A relation of the Indian War, by Mr. Easton of Rhode Island, 1675.
In the winter, in the year 1674, an Indian was found dead, and by a coroner’s inquest of Plymouth Colony, judged murdered. He was found dead in a hole through ice broken in a pond with his gun and some fowl by him. Some English supposed him thrown in. Some Indians that I judged intelligible and impartial in [00:08:30] that case did think he fell in, and was so drowned and that the ice did hurt his throat, as the English said it was cut; but they acknowledged that sometimes naughty Indians would kill others but not, as ever they heard, to obscure it, as if the dead Indian was not murdered. The dead Indian was called Sassamon and was a Christian that could read and write.
Report was that he was a bad man; and that King Philip got him to write his will and that he made the writing for a great part of the land [00:09:00] to be his, but read it as if it had been as Philip would have it; but it came to be known, and then he ran away from him. Now one Indian informed that three Indians had murdered him, and accused Philip so to employ them, and that the English would hang Philip, so the Indians were afraid, and reported that the English had flattered them, or by threats, to belie Philip that they might kill him to have his Land; and that if Philip had done it, it was their Law so to execute whomever their kings [00:09:30] judged deserved it, and that he had no cause to hide it.
So the English were afraid, and Philip was afraid, and both increased in arms, but for 40 years time reports and jealousies of war had been so very frequent that we did not think that now a war was breaking forth. Then to endeavor to prevent it, we sent a man to Philip to say that if he would come to the ferry, we would come over to speak with him. We sat very friendly together. We told [00:10:00] him our business was to endeavor that they might not receive or do wrong. They said that was well, they had done no wrong, the English wronged them. We said we knew. The English said the Indians wronged them, and the Indians said the English wronged them, but our desire was the quarrel might rightly be decided in the best way, and not as dogs decided their quarrels.
The Indians owned that fighting was the worst way; then they propounded how right might take place. We said by arbitration. We [00:10:30] said they might choose an Indian king, and the English might choose the Governor of New York; that neither had cause to say either were parties in the difference. They said they had not heard of that way, and said we honestly spoke, so we were persuaded if that way had been tendered they would have accepted. They said they had been the first in doing good to the English, and the English the first in doing wrong. They said when the English first came, their king’s father was as a great man and the English as a little [00:11:00] child.
He constrained other Indians from wronging the English, and gave them corn, and showed them how to plant, and was free to do them any good, and had let them have a hundred times more land than now the king had for his own people. But their king’s brother, when he was king, came miserably to die by being forced into court, and, as they judged, poisoned. And another grievance was if 20 of their honest Indians testified that an Englishman had done them wrong, it was [00:11:30] as nothing; and if but one of their worst Indians testified against any Indian or their king when it pleased the English, that was sufficient.
Another grievance was when their kings sold land, the English would say it was more than they agreed to and a writing must be proof against all them, and some of their kings had done wrong to sell so much that he left his people none, and some being given to drunkeness, the English made them drunk and then cheated them in bargains. But now their kings were forewarned [00:12:00] not to part with land for nothing in comparison to the value thereof. Now whomever the English had once owned for king or queen, they would later disinherit, and make another king that would give or sell them their land, that now they had no hopes left to keep any land.
Another grievance was that the English cattle and horses still increased, so that when they removed 30 miles from where the English had anything to do, they could not keep their corn from being spoiled, they never being used to [00:12:30] fence, and thought that when the English bought land of them that they would have kept their cattle upon their own land. Another grievance was that the English were so eager to sell the Indians liquors that most of the Indians spent all in drunkeness, and then ravened upon the sober Indians and, they did believe, often did hurt the English cattle, and their kings could not prevent it.
We endeavored however that they should lay down their arms, for the English were too strong for them. They [00:13:00] said, then the English should do to them as they did when they were too strong for the English. So we departed without any discourteousness, and suddenly had a letter from Plymouth’s Governor saying that they intended in arms to conform Philip, but giving no information what it was that they required or what terms he refused to have their quarrel decided, and in a week’s time, after we had been with the Indians, the war was thus begun.
Anthony Comegna: Like their contemporary Indian warriors [00:13:30] in Virginia, New Englanders saw a comet streak across the sky. Millennial theory once again met haphazard historical practice. The divines seized the opportunity for war, while Easton, Roger Williams and others strived to maintain the peace. Governor Easton’s account included the mournful recognition that his own people were unworthy of Philip’s trust and goodwill.
Speaker 2: When winter was come, we had a letter from Boston of the United [00:14:00] Commissioners that they were resolved to reduce the Narragansetts to conformity, so as not to be troubled with them anymore, and desired some help of boats and otherwise if we saw cause, and that we should keep secret concerning it. Our governor sent them word that we were satisfied the Narragansetts were treacherous and had aided Philip, and as we had assisted to relieve their army before, so we should be ready to assist them still, and advised [00:14:30] that terms might be tendered that such might expect compensation that would not accept to engage in war and that there might be a separation between the guilty and the innocent, which in war could not be expected. We were not in the least expecting that they would have begun the war and not before proclaimed it or not give them defiance, I having often informed the Indians that English men would not begin a war otherwise. It was brutish so to do.
I am sorry that the Indians [00:15:00] have cause to think me deceitful, for the English thus began the war with the Narragansetts after we had sent off our Island many Indians and informed them, if they kept by the watersides and did not meddle, that the English would do them no harm; although it was also not safe for us to let them live here. The army first took all those prisoners, then fell upon the Indian houses, burned them, and killed some men. The war began without proclamation; [00:15:30] and some of our people did not know the English had begun mischief to the Indians, and being confident and having cause to be so, believed that the Indians would not hurt them before the English began. So they did not keep their garrison exactly. But the Indians, having received that mischief, came unexpectedly upon them and destroyed 145 of them beside other great loss.
But the English army commanders say that they supposed Connecticut forces [00:16:00] would have been there. They sold the Indians that they had taken as aforesaid, for slaves. War was declared by the Commissioners at Boston on September 9th, 1675; and now the English army is out to seek after the Indians. But it is most likely that those most able to do mischief will escape, and the women and children and impotent may be destroyed; and so the most able will have the less encumbrance to doing mischief. But [00:16:30] I am confident it would be best for English and Indians that a peace were made upon honest terms for each to have a due priority and to enjoy it without oppression or usurpation by one to the other. But the English dare not trust the Indians’ promises; neither the Indians to the English’s promises; and each has great cause therefore.
I see no way likely, unless a cessation from arms might be procured until it might be known what terms King Charles [00:17:00] would propound, for we have great cause to think the Narragansett kings would trust our king and that they would have accepted him to be umpire if it had been tendered. I am persuaded that New England’s priests are so blinded by the spirit of persecution and anxious to have their hire and to have more room, that they have been the cause that the law of nations and the law of arms have been violated in this war.
Anthony Comegna: [00:17:30] The war was the deadliest in all of American history, when measured proportionate to the population, and it nearly destroyed English settlement north of New York. The total population of New England in the early 1670s included about 20,000 Algonquian-speaking natives and 50,000 English. Over the three or four years of ferocious war, about 3,000 English and 6,000 natives died in combat or atrocities. Over 10% of the [00:18:00] population claimed by fire, sword and shot. New Englanders enslaved thousands of natives, shipped southward, where they could not so easily escape bondage. Thousands more on each side suffered homelessness and poverty as a result of the fighting.
The Massachusetts Bay General Court determined that popular sins were the real problems. The court passed restrictions on wearing long hair and flashy clothing. They cracked down misbehaving children, the idle poor, domestic [00:18:30] violence, alcohol consumption, and Quakerism. Unwilling to admit their own diplomatic failures and personal avarice, the General Court deflected blame to the savage Indians and the remaining domestic disturbers. The war was an unmitigated disaster. The Puritans showed themselves overconfident and underprepared for real imperial warfare. How could they ever hope to found God’s New Israel if [00:19:00] they could barely survive native uprisings?
But every casualty hurt the Indians worse than the English. Eventually, Philip and the other sachems’ war parties ran low. After finally tracking him down, an English soldier shot Philip in the heart on the 13th of August 1676. His wife and children were sold into slavery on Bermuda, and the English mutilated his corpse. More than half the English towns were ruined, and war dragged on in Maine for two years after Philip’s [00:19:30] death. Fresh out of patience for these fanatical, rebellious colonists in Virginia, Massachusetts and God knows where next, Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York, moved royal military forces into Maine until peace was concluded in 1678. Colonial war debt was over £1,000, and economic growth lagged pre-war levels for another century.
For pious and land-hungry New Englanders, the war was an existential [00:20:00] crisis that they survived, only to be betrayed by royal power inserting itself where it didn’t belong and wasn’t wanted. To the king and recent historians, the war baring Philip’s name was no inevitability. It was a catastrophic failure of ideas and institutions in a complex, swiftly-modernizing Atlantic world. New England’s great wars against the Indians showed that it was certainly no city on the hill.
[00:20:30] Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.