Tuesday, February 8, 2011
"Nothing intelligent to say...": Servants and slaves in southern New England; the initial years for natives and settlers
Last fall I began to search for material about slavery in 17th century southern New England with the hope that I would have something intelligent to say for my first endeavor as “reader.” No surprise, there is a richness, complexity and darkness to the history of natives and settlers, as differing peoples began to mix it up in this territory. I will describe some key events from 1620 to 1640, an incomplete narrative, after taking a look at the respective cultures that clashed once English settlers began to arrive on native land. My enigmatic title is part of a quote from the novelist Kurt Vonnegut which I will explain later.
I hope to explore how English settlers got here, how servitude evolved and slavery took hold as a significant economic, social and security development. The sources I found are almost exclusively based upon accounts of colonist history by colonists and accounts of native activity by colonists. Archeology has provided limited data regarding the lives of natives in the early 1600s. What we mostly have is one side of the story.
I. Backdrop of the Clash of Peoples
As far back as 7,000 years ago peoples inhabited our four season region of woodland, mountains and coastland. The migrating Algonquin people arrived 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, divided into nations, living a life of hunting, fishing, gathering and seasonal crop farming, with clustered villages along the coast in the warm months and inland by other waters during the coldest, following game. They lived in circular thatched dwellings easily moved with the seasons or in more permanent longhouses.
By the early 1600’s there were six Algonquin peoples residing in the region, each with populations of 10,000 to 20,000, a common language and distinguishing dialects and habits. They were traders and gifted in negotiation and diplomacy as a shifting balance of power forged alliances between them in the face of disputes and aggression. Each of the peoples was led by a sachem or pow-wow, a male head who was priest, medicine man and chief. Conflicts between native peoples might lead to violent skirmishes or raids, often resolved through diplomacy and concession. Slaves were a benefit of a war victory, traded as a commodity or often incorporated with standing into village life. There was no servant class per se, although women attended to the activities and burdens of family and village life.
Families were comprised of a man and a woman with children living in a round house that would include other families and generations, especially in the cold months. Women tended to home based work, child care and planting while men were hunters and warriors. The environment was revered and studied, viewed as alive with lessons, trusted for providing necessities. Deer, turkey, geese, fish, shell fish and berries were abundant. Fields and open spaces were burned off twice yearly to stifle growth and enhance crops, while swamps with thick forests, inhabited by the plenteous beaver served as refuge from danger.
We know much more about Elizabethan England in the early 1600s, estate, farm and village based. Nobility ruled as the landed aristocracy. A rising gentry sought to find fortune and land, fed by the economy of trade that began to reach to other shores. Working on the estates were yeomen, farmers who with good fortune were issued, loaned or sold modest plots of land for farms and herds. When the harvest was abundant, villages bustled with craftsmen, artisans and merchants.
A large servant class was estate based and included the unskilled, those bonded to service for stated years, a documented contract between parties. Children of the poor were often given over to the owners of estates, farms or shops to learn a trade or to creditors. Indentured servants, age 15 and over, could be bonded for seven years or more to work off a debt, for a minor crime, or for passage to other shores.
New settlements in Ireland, called plantations, as the migrants were known as planters, were founded beginning in the 1500s amidst natives viewed as heathen and uncivilized. There was opportunity, land and resources on the horizon.
During this volatile religious and political time under Charles I, separatists coalesced in many villages in search of freedom from the newly formed Church of England and rallied by a communal ideal based upon Christian scripture. Led by pious gentry, separatist communities met in homes, comprised of the families of artisans and yeomen of modest means. They sought to return to the purity of the early church, with no papist hierarchy and ritual. After being derided as puritans, they began to embrace the label. They viewed themselves as chosen by God to found a new Israel, a purified community where they would have the freedom from the influence of others. They were ready to venture as pilgrims to seek out a new land, where they might settle and prosper.
II. The Journey of Separatists
Such a community had developed by 1600 in the inland town of Scooby, half way between bustling London and the border with Scotland. “Come out from among them and be ye separate saith the Lord and touch not the unclean thing” (Christian Scripture II Cor. 6:17) was the holy covenant for the some 300 faithful who gathered under the leadership of John Robinson and the younger William Bradford. As self proclaimed “saincts” they separated themselves from and increasingly defied Anglican doctrine and bishop and congregated independently, centered on their hearing and learning from the authority of Holy Scripture. Any outside their circle were known as “strangers.”
Isolation in matters of faith brought day to day social and economic strife and hardship. After a few years of intense scrutiny and growing persecution, the Scooby community resolved in 1611 to migrate to Leyden and the tolerant Netherlands across the North Sea (Club member Al Easton provided us with a valuable description last year). They claimed to be pilgrims but the capital P did not appear until the 19th century as a primary designation.
During the 10-year sojourn in Leyden under John Robinson’s compassionate and wise leadership, the community struggled to adjust to the seduction of a more tolerant culture, the younger generation less willing to remain separate. Longing led to resolve to relocate to a distant shore where they might live untainted by strangers. Plans were made by wealthy members to venture to a new Dutch colony across the seas, an “unpeopled” land. Contracts were signed with a Dutch trading company and merchants to secure the Mayflower and the smaller Speedwell to depart in the spring of 1620, to transport some 120 members. By the early summer supplies had not been secured by the merchants, deposits had disappeared and the separatists could only pay for half of the passage leading to just as many non-separatist strangers signing on.
The Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy so those passengers were taken into the Mayflower, already a miserable arrangement with insufficient food, beer and supplies, doubled up quarters and a late start for a three month westerly sail into frightening gale force winds. There was hardly enough provisions, most was consumed before the trip was half over, starvation, disease and death was rampant. The Mayflower Compact was written in this desperate situation, to band together against foreboding elements, as separatists and non-separatists, “into a civil body politic. . . to enact, constitute and frame. . . just and equal laws. . . for the general good of the colony.” In exasperating hours better nature prevailed and groundwork was set among the adventurers for civil consent to be instituted.
Upon sighting land in late November, still short of their destination of New Amsterdam, they scouted for the best locale in the arm of an extended cape and settled amidst ice and snow to a formerly inhabited clearing near a swamp. They learned later that this opportune spot had been abandoned by natives just a year before, due to an epidemic which had killed most of the Pokanoket peoples who lived there. “A virgin soil plague”, likely smallpox or influenza, had been transmitted by European traders. No sachem had the power to stave off the disease which killed over 90 percent of the native settlement. When the migrants learned of the plague they attributed it to God’s preparing the way for their welfare at the site they named Plymouth Plantation, after the port of their departure. From its inception it was an armed fortress and every settler carried a weapon.
III. Clash of Peoples and Cultures
There were primarily six nations among the eastern Algonquin peoples who shared a common language: the Pokanoket (later Wampanoags), Massachusett, Naragansett, Pequot, Nipmuc and Mohegan. The more western Naragansett and Mohegan nations had evaded the rampage of recent epidemics. They were professing new might and strength from gods that had spared them, leaving their weakened neighbors fearful of aggression. Skirmishes between warriors, kidnappings and the enslavement of captured neighbors resulted from border hostility but the preference was diplomacy, negotiated concessions and treaties to resolve disputes and solidify peace, always culminated with extensive ceremonies.
European traders were known to the native peoples for over 15 years prior to the first English settlement. Provisions, beaver and animal pelts were traded for metal tools, weapons and pots. In 1614, the abduction by Thomas Hunt and crew of 27 warriors who came on his ship with gifts to trade quickly spread as a hateful tale about the men with firing weapons who travelled in big ships. Hunt’s captives were either sold into slavery to the Spanish or taken against their will to England as evidence of the new mysterious land. The notorious Hunt kidnappings led the following year, 1615, to natives reciprocating by capturing a group of unsuspecting French traders, killing most and trading three into slavery. One native, Squanto, brought to England in servitude by Hunt was taught English and remarkably returned with traders in early 1621 to become a trusted translator and diplomatic courier. His subsequent efforts to undercut Massasoit, the Pokanoket sachem in tribal negotiations with the pilgrims led to his poisoning and death.
Natives who observed the appearance of the Mayflower kept their distance for months, fearing abduction or death. The presence of women and children and efforts to build strange wooden homes in clusters led natives to reconsider. Why would they settle at the site of horrifying sickness, death and sorrow? Were their gods fearless? The migrants, meanwhile, hungrily dug up caches of stored native corn which did not trouble the observers since they had no sense of personal property. The Pokanokets were willing to share what they had to demonstrate goodwill. Massasoit, a sophisticated diplomat, weakened by the loss of most of his warriors to the epidemic, set to watch and wait. The new migrants fearfully knew they were being observed from a distance.
In March 1621, Squanto was sent to propose a meeting and hostages were exchanged leading to a face to face conference between Massasoit and the pilgrim’s Governor John Carver accompanied by William Bradford. They exchanged gifts and a libation and offered friendship. Massasoit upon drinking the aqua vit broke out in a cold sweat. Tensions were high but an agreement with six points was reached that day. Parties resolved not to injure or hurt each other, to send any offender for punishment, to restore tools, to aid each other in the event “any did unjustly war” against one of them, to deliver confederates, and to leave their weapons behind when visiting. In his nation’s weakened state Massasoit had found a new ally. When pilgrims carried their muskets to a follow up ceremony even as the natives laid down their bows, Massasoit’s brother called them to respect the treaty. Firearms were then set aside, the treaty tested in its first hours.
Other native peoples were wary of the new settlers and allied to watch developments. In 1623, when Massasoit became deathly ill with typhus and was reported to have already died, Edward Winslow volunteered to visit the village to pay respects, finding Massasoit still alive and petitioning for medicine to restore his health. Winslow cooked up a pottage and Massasoit remarkably improved and the alliance was saved. A civil and diplomatic approach with natives continued to calm the waters and Winslow’s ability was lauded.
A new settlement at Wassagusett, north of Plymouth, was a disaster of poor planning and starvation. The village’s intrusion had provoked the Massachusett tribe, English hostages were being held and a rumor arose that natives were mobilizing against all English settlers to wipe them out. Massasoit warned of the danger and advised an attack before hand, seemingly a way to diminish his neighboring enemies who had taken advantage of his people’s weakened state. The settlers, with no reliable intelligence of their own, agreed to attack.
Miles Standish, the colony’s military leader, led an armed party to Wassagusett in 1623 and was told by the settlers that though the situation was dire, the natives had in no way been threatening. Some settlers were even living in round houses with the native Massachusett. Challenged face to face in a meeting over a meal, Standish attacked two native emissaries and killed seven warriors who had come with them. This provocative incident, fed by rumor, became known as the Wassagusett massacre, the first military incident in the clash of cultures. Massachusett natives fled to the west, taking their stories to Mohegan territory. Conflict developed among Plymouth settlers about the use of military means. Word spread among the native peoples that murder and massacre could be expected; if you were not an ally you were an enemy. In the face of their intruders, native peoples came to refer to themselves as “original people” or ‘true people.” In Leyden, John Robinson, the Scooby community founder, was quite troubled when informed of the violent actions against natives.
IV. Various Migrations
Back in England, after almost a decade of heightened civil unrest and persecution of those opposed to the authority of the English throne and church, a significantly larger and more prosperous band of puritan believers crossed the sea in 1629 to the new found land of promise. A royal charter as the Massachusetts Bay Company had been secured and a fleet of 11 ships with 1,000 migrants, hundreds of livestock and chickens, departed from England led by John Winthrop in the ship Arabella, landing in summer to what would become Boston harbor. During the 1630s over 20,000 migrants would follow to the eastern shore of the colony, fanning out to enclaves in the circle of the harbor and to outposts beyond the eastern plains to inlets and along a steady river running north to south to a large sound. The 1630s became known as the decade of the great migration, the first land stampede of our history. Plymouth plantation with its tiny harbor became a backwater, little more than 300 as thousands of new arrivals reached these shores. By 1638 settlers outnumbered natives.
Various forms of servitude in colonial New England stemmed from the culture and mores of both natives and settlers. Neither were slaving societies that relied upon mass labor for military, agriculture or public works. As noted, natives had slaves primarily as the benefit of a war victory, often incorporating those captured into their family units, especially women and children. Men who were slaves might also be given standing after some years of demonstrated trustworthiness and hard work.
The settlers brought with them lifelong servants as well as bonded servants in a contractual form of servitude. Slavery in the new settlements, as a justified form of property, grew out of political, social and economic developments, first as a result of outright war and then by colonial laws and judicial edicts. Later in the century slavery would become a major commodity in trans-Atlantic trade between England, the Americas and Africa. While the English settlers came with reliance upon a white servitude class, they readily accepted both servants and slaves of other races primarily for household labor in the new land. Settlers looked upon natives, marked by racial difference, as uncivilized savages living in an untamed wilderness who held heathen and magical beliefs. They would benefit as a servile class by civilizing Christian benefactors.
The constant flow and migration inland of settlers in the 1630s brought curiosity, wariness, consternation and fury within and among the native peoples of the area. Natives learned about the baffling notion of land ownership and sachems negotiated sales with eager settlers, at first for a few household items of trade and later for firearms and clothing, with little understanding of land value. Efforts by natives to stave off and concede to new arrivals did not stem the tide. The elders of the Bay and Plymouth colonies encouraged ( and evicted) newly arriving non-separatist strangers to move on to settlements west and south, leading to direct contact with all nations by the late 1630s. Recognition of the distinguishing characteristics between native peoples was evident but skin color was the defining reality. Natives were outsiders. Courts and laws began to define forms of social control and privileges in land purchases.
V. Violent Clashes and Slavery
The Pequot War of 1637 was the major development in the acceptance of slavery. Trade by the Bay Colony was extending to Dutch and other English colonies to the south and west. Clashes by new settlements in the west along the Connecticut River with native peoples included disputes over property and hunting rights, destruction of native crops by settler livestock, selling of alcohol and dishonest traders. In 1634, scores of the Pequot people, inhabiting what is now eastern Connecticut, died in a smallpox epidemic. The election of a new sachem led to a split with the Mohegans who then quickly allied with English settlers. Weakened to half their numbers, the Pequots felt cornered. A trader and founder of Wethersfield, John Oldham was killed in July of 1636, a killing attributed to Pequot natives and settlers called for punishment.
As tensions and rumors increased on the expanding frontiers, the role of separatist Roger Williams is valuable for our discussion (Harold Salzman in his recent Club paper cited Williams’ crucial role in fostering religious freedom). Expelled from the Bay Colony in 1636 for his heretical pronouncements, Williams ventured south with his followers to land purchased from Massasoit, adjacent to the land of the Pequots and Narragansetts. He had privately professed the necessity of what he referred to as “friendship” with natives as well as “civility and courtesy” since in his eyes they were not heathen. Williams was learning their language and seeking to understand their way of life and point of view. When it came to land issues, he claimed that they were more Christian than many settlers. Soon after his expulsion, however, he was petitioned by Bay Colony leaders to mediate their competing claims with natives, to seek an alliance with the Naragansetts and to convince the Pequots to lay down their arms, to cease raids and the taking of prisoners. The Pequots refused Williams’ offer of negotiated peace but the Naragansetts agreed to the alliance with the English, creating another significant division between the native peoples.
When the captains of several trading vessels were killed by natives in spring 1637, a united military party of the various settlements was sent south along the coast to attack the isolated Pequot tribe. Once again unconfirmed reports and rumors were fed by fear of the wilderness.
Coming upon the main Pequot settlement and fortress in May of 1637 near what is now Mystic, Connecticut, the united troops of the colonies, together with native allies, attacked and set them ablaze, shooting men, women and children who attempted to flee. At the end of the day over 500 Pequot natives had been massacred. Upon hearing the news Bradford wrote, “It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire… and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God.”
Nothing intelligent can be said about a massacre. Settlers came to regard these actions not only as collateral to a just war but as a final way to solve the threat of the enemy.
The Pequot War brought new precedents. Justification about what to do with captives was acted on by the governing Bay colony court, namely as property to be sold into slavery for war expenses. Over 180 surviving women and children were sold within the colony and 124 men were sold and shipped out to Bermuda and the West Indies, lest they rise up and attack settlers. The surviving Pequot, some 2,000 in number, fled west and sought refuge with the Mohegan peoples though they were allies with the English. A fear of natives on the widening English frontier grew. Decades later courts were still ruling on runaway servants, now adults, bonded from the Pequot War.
With the onset of war, slavery became justified as a permanent and perpetual form of servitude. No contract or form of indenture was needed. Judicial edict began to solidify special colonial laws, joining Negroes and Indians as a different class, as property, deeded or otherwise. Such became an essential preface to the role of New England traders in the enslavement and transport of Africans to these shores. The civil contract was first and foremost for the settlers.
More extensive atrocities of war took place in the second generation, King William’s War in 1675-1676, pitting settlers with their native allies against other native peoples, losses by both sides in the thousands, the destruction of countless settler towns and a tragic diaspora of natives from our area. The prevailing rules of engagement had been set in the war of the first generation, the Pequot War. If we see our region’s heritage as the clash of peoples, one could surmise that our first civil war began within years of the settler’s arrival to these shores, more pointedly a series of wars and genocidal retaliations, which along with slavery has been lost in a darkened corner of our common history.
VI. Concluding Remarks
Historians have described three basic motives of European zeal to colonize the Americas in these early years: elements of fame, fortune and faith. Our English ancestors, separatists and non-separatists, were driven by a combination of destiny and righteousness, based on a covenant with God and a search for prosperity. What it meant to be a civil people, to provide for welfare in the face of an unnumbered enemy, to shape the common good, a commonwealth was being forged. We find formulations about just war, justified military action and the killing of civilians taking hold from the onset. Property rights came long before human rights in this civil contract.
One cultural historian described this period not as “good pilgrims and savage natives or dastardly pilgrims and innocent natives.” In the first decades of English arrival to our region migrants and natives could not peacefully live in the same territory due to divergent world views and ways of living, especially when an imbalance of populations and civil power increased.
Settlers had come with a quest to subdue an uninhabited wilderness. As colonies took root, a racial bias against darker skinned and uncivilized native peoples emerged. In the second generation, settlers founded what came to be known as praying towns where agreeable natives were clothed, their hair cut, a trade and domestic life taught as well as the ability to read and converse in English. They were to be civilized with the hopes that they would convert to and be matured in the Christian faith. The yoke of Christ was cited as a civilizing and humbling form of servant hood and social control.
In 1629, the Massachusett Bay Colony adopted a seal for the charter granted by King Charles I. Around the circumference were Latin words stating the “seal of the Society of Massachusetts Bay in New England.” The center depicts a native, clothed with leaves for a loin cloth holding a bow in the left hand and an arrow pointed downward in his right, depicting a gesture of peace. He stands on the land, two tiny pine trees to either side. The trail from his mouth read “Come over and help us.” The intent of the seal was to underscore the religious and economic benefits of colonization of the natives and land which the settlers were civilizing and creating into a commonwealth. Until recently this represents the prevailing interpretation of our history. The words stem from Christian scripture (Acts 16:9), where the Apostle Paul entreats missionaries to come over to Macedonia, crossing from what would be known as Asia Minor to Europe, to bring words of deliverance. The seal and subsequent revisions depict a native offering peace and seeking aid from the commonwealth.
In Slaughter House Five, Kurt Vonnegut, a US Army prisoner of war, recounts his survival of the bombing of Dresden in World War II and his effort to make sense of a world where massacres, on whatever scale, continue to occur. He exclaims to Sam, the publisher offering him the contract for his book, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The passionate impulse or strategy to finish off the enemy, to wipe them out, is a feature of war. All that might be said finally is that such an impulse and strategy is part of our earliest history, a legacy to be held in the light of day.