Rhode Island’s Quaker deputy‐governor desperately seeks peace while Puritan expansionists see only opportunity.
Easton's "Relation of the Indian War"
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
John Easton was born in Hampshire, England in 1624. His mother died while John was young, and the Eastons migrated to America in 1634. There, the father Nicolas Easton joined John Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson in the raging “antinomian controversy.” Colonial officials even confiscated Easton’s personal weaponry for fear of an antinomian rebellion, perhaps one making common cause with the Pequot Indians. After Anne’s trial and conviction, Easton relocated to New Hampshire but continued to face Puritan persecution until finally joining the Hutchinsonian community on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay. Their own local power struggles divided early Rhode Islanders and the Eastons followed “first judge” William Coddington to the south of the island, founding Newport. John became a freeman in 1655 and colonial attorney general in 1656. Over his life in public office, he was a Deputy, an Assistant, deputy governor, and governor from 1690 to 1695.
Easton was a Quaker helping to lead a colony whose existence was a direct challenge to Massachusetts Bay. For the Puritans and their eternal mission to establish God’s kingdom on Earth, Quakers and antinomians were as much (or more) of a threat as the surrounding Indians. Though they successfully exterminated the Pequots in the late 1630s, the Puritan conquest of domestic dissent was a necessary first step. By Easton’s tenure as deputy governor (1674–1676), another massive and disastrous Indian war was at hand. Metacom–called “King Philip”–and a large cohort of native sachems erupted in decentralized and spontaneous rebellion against the English, especially those Puritans whose policy was war whenever expedient. Eminent Rhode Islanders like elder Roger Williams and the more youthful John Easton strove to maintain the peace at all costs. The Bay divines saw the peacemaking effort as a means for antinomian coalition with Philip’s warriors, aimed at the possible extinction of Massachusetts–and wouldn’t Satan just love that? In Easton’s account of King Philip’s War, the deputy governor recounts his peace‐making negotiations with Philip and laments that natives had far too few reasons to trust that all English would act in such good faith as did the antinomians and Quakers.
By John Easton
A RELATION OF THE INDIAN WAR, BY MR. EASTON, OF RHODE ISLAND, 1675
A true relation of what I know and of reports, and my understanding concerning the beginning and progress of the war now between the English and the Indians. 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 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 Sausimun 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 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 showed a coat that he said they gave him to conceal them; the Indians report that the informer had played away his coat, and these men sent him that coat, and afterwards demanded pay, and he, so as not to pay, accused them, and knowing it would please the English so, to think him a better Christian. And the report came, that the three Indians had confessed 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 judged deserved it, and that he had no cause to hide it.
So Philip kept his men in arms. The Plymouth Governor required him to disband his men, and informed him his jealousy was false. Philip answered he would do no harm, and thanked the Governor for his information. The three Indians were hanged, and to the last denied the fact; but one broke the halter, as it is reported, then desired to be saved, and so was a little while, then confessed they three had done the fact, and then he was hanged; and it was reported that Sausimun before his death had informed of the Indian plot, and that if the Indians knew it they would kill him, and that the heathen might destroy the English for their wickedness, as God had permited the heathen to destroy the Israelites of old; 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; but about a week before it did we had cause to think it would. 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. About four miles we had to come thither. Our messenger came to them; they not aware of it and behaved themselves as furious but suddenly were appeased when they understood who he was and what he came for. Philip called his council and agreed to come to us; he came himself unarmed and about 40 of his men armed. Then 5 of us went over; three were magistrates. We sat very friendly together. We told 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. They said all English agreed against them, and so by arbitration they had had much wrong, many miles square of land so taken from them; for English would have English arbitrators, and once they were persuaded to give in their arms, that thereby jealousy might be removed, and the English having their arms would not deliver them as they had promised, until they consented to pay a 100 pounds, and now they had not so much land or money, that they were as good to be killed as to leave all their livelihood. We 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. We did endeavor not to hear their complaints, and said it was not convenient for us now to consider of; but to endeavor to prevent war, we said to them when in war against the English blood was spilt that engaged all Englishmen, for we were to be all under one king. We knew what their complaints would be, and in our colony had removed some of them in sending for Indian rulers insofar as the crime concerned Indians’ lives, which they very lovingly accepted, and agreed with us to their execution, and said so they were able to satisfy their subjects when they knew an Indian suffered duly, but said in whatever was only between their Indians and not in townships that we had purchased, they would not have us prosecute, and that they had a great fear lest any of their Indians should be called or forced to be Christian Indians. They said that such were in everything more mischievous, only dissemblers, and that then the English made them not subject to their own kings, and by their lying to wrong their kings. We knew it to be true, and we promising them that however in government to Indians all should be alike and that we knew it was our king’s will it should be so, that although we were weaker than other colonies, they having submitted to our king to protect them, others dared not otherwise to molest them; so they expressed that they took that to be well, that we had little cause to doubt but that to us under the king they would have yielded to our determinations in whatever any should have complained to us against them; but Philip charged it to be dishonesty in us to put off the hearing of their complaints; and therefore we consented to hear them. 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 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 100 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 a Englishman had done them wrong, it was 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 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 kepe 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 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 knew beforehand that these were their grand complaints, but then we only endeavored to persuade them that all complaints might be righted without war, but could get no other answer but that they had not heard of that way for the governer of New York and an Indian king to have the hearing of it. We had cause to think that had it been tendered, it would have been accepted. We endeavored however that they should lay down their arms, for the English were too strong for them. They 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 Governer 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…
When winter was come we had a letter from Boston of the United 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 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 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; 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 would have been there. They sold the Indians that they had taken as aforesaid, for slaves, except for one old man that was carried off our Island upon his son’s back. He was so decrepit War was declared by the Commissioners at Boston on September 9, 1675. In October the size of the war force was increased and Josiah Winslow of Plymouth placed in command. He could not go, and when the army took them, his son upon his back carried him to the garrison. Some would have had him devoured by dogs, but the tenderness of some of them prevailed to cut off his head. And afterwards they came suddenly upon the Indians where the Indians had prepared to defend themselves, and so received and did much mischief. And for about six weeks since, the time has been spent by both parties to recruit; 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 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 propriety 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 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 about any difference, for we do know the English have had much contention against those Indians to invalidate the kings determination for Narragansett to be in our colony, and we have cause to think it was the greatest cause of the war against them. I see no means likely to procure a cessation from arms unless the Governor of New York can find a way to intercede; and so it will be likely a peace may be made without troubling our king. It has always been a principle in our Colony that there should be but one supreme authority for Englishmen both in our native country and wherever English have jurisdiction; and so we know that no English should begin a war and not first offer for the king to be umpire, and not persecute those that will not conform to their worship, even if their worship be what is not owned by the king. The king would not mind to have such things redressed; some may take it that he has not the power, and that there may be away for them to take power in opposition to him. 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 to be mere hirelings, that they have been the cause that the law of nations and the law of arms have been violated in this war, and that the war would not have been started if there had not been a hireling who, for his management of what he calls the gospel, to have it spread by violence, and to have his gain from his quarters paid for; and if any magistrates are unwilling to act as their pack horses, they will be trumpeting for innovation or war.