The cruel irony of the colonists’ interning at least 500 Indians on Deer Island during King Philip’s War (1675-76) was that the victims were pro-English Christian converts – occupying a concentration camp in Boston Harbor.
BY JILL LEPORE
ABRAM HILL WAS WAITING FOR A MOONLIT NIGHT. On February 6, 1676, Hill, an English settler from Malden, in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, asked Thomas Shepard if he would be willing to “go with us to Deere island to destroy ye Indians.” The plan was brutally simple. On the next clear, bright night, Hill and thirty stout men from Lynn, Malden, and Charlestown would meet at Runny Marsh and row a small fleet of boats across the frigid waters of Boston Harbor, steering by the light of the moon. They would haul their craft up onto the sandy shores of tiny, barren Deer Island, pull out their pistols and knives and clubs, and then quietly, quickly, they would kill every Indian man, woman, and child they could find. Simple, brutal.
And they would have done it, but for Shepard’s betrayal. Little more than a week after meeting with Hill, Shepard reported their conversation to the Massachusetts Council, and the plan was foiled. Shepard wasn’t a murderer, even if he, like many colonists in Boston in 1676, wanted the Indians on Their hatred was the bloodthirsty hatred that comes with war. Abram Hill, Thomas Shepard, the angry people of Boston, and the much-despised Indians on Deer Island were caught up in the most devastating conflict of their time—King Philip’s War. Once, New England’s Wampanoag Indians had warmly welcomed the English, and in 1621 their sachem, Massasoit, had even feasted with them (we celebrate their peaceful feast every Thanksgiving). But after enduring decades of fraudulent land deals, Massasoit’s own son, Philip, determined to wage war to oust the colonists from New England.
He nearly succeeded. Beginning in June of 1675, not only Wampanoags, but Narragansetts, Nipmucks, and Pocumtucks rallied behind Philip’s campaign to destroy the English and joined him in attacking English towns. From Boston, Puritan minister Increase Mather painfully recorded in his diary the razing of one town after another. To Mather, it seemed that the Indians had “risen almost round the country.” Before the final shots were fired over half of all the English settlements in New England—everything west of Concord—had been laid waste. As Boston merchant Nathaniel Saltonstall put it in a letter to a friend in London, “Nothing could be expected but an utter desolation.” Twenty-five towns lay in total ruin.
AND THEN—THE KILLING FIELDS
But Indians suffered far greater losses. Colonial armies pursued enemy Indians from Narragansett Bay to the Connecticut River Valley, killing warriors in the field and families in their homes. In their efforts, the colonists were aided by Pequot and Mohegan Indians, who had been pressured into an alliance after the English nearly destroyed them in the Pequot War of 1637. Meanwhile, those Algonquians who fought against the English saw their communities decimated: thousands were killed in the fighting and thousands more died of disease or starvation or were shipped out of the colonies as slaves. Always brutal and everywhere fierce, King Philip’s War, as it came to be called, proved to be, in proportion to population, the most fatal war in all of American history. And one of the most merciless: both the English and the Indians practiced torture, killed women and children, and mutilated the dead. Yet the Indians on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, the people Abram Hill so wanted to kill and Thomas Shepard sought to save, were not Philip’s allies. They were Christian Indians loyal to the English, Algonquians who had been converted to Christianity by a zealous minister from Roxbury named John Eliot. In the decades before King Philip’s War, Eliot had translated the Bible into the Algonquian tongue, Massachusett; had taught hundreds of Indians to read and write; and had established fourteen “praying towns,” Indian settlements built as Christian communities. (The first and largest was Natick, Massachusetts.) To Eliot, Christianizing Indians had prompted the English to come to New England in the first place, answering the plea mouthed by the stylized Indian on the Massachusetts Bay Colony seal: “Come Over and Help Us.”
Help was not exactly forthcoming. From the very start of the war, enraged colonists began advocating the imprisonment of Eliot’s converts, believing that although many Christian Indians had lived among the English for most, if not all, of their lives, they could not be trusted to resist the temptation to join Philip’s campaign of terror. Persuaded by this fear, on October 13, 1675, five months into King Philip’s War, the Massachusetts Council ordered that all Christian Indians be rounded up, marched through the countryside, and interned on Deer Island for the duration of the war, an eerie foreshadowing of the fate of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was a dire sentence.
Today the Boston Harbor Islands are a National Recreation Area, run by the National Park Service. Visitors and locals alike can take ferries and water taxis and hop from one island to the next to picnic, fly kites, and scramble over the remains of military forts and quarantine hospitals the major nineteenth- and twentieth-century uses of the islands. But even in summer, getting to the islands can be a chilly ride. Wind whips across the harbor. In winter, the islands are abandoned to a bitter, biting cold. And now, as then, the islands’ sandy soil is not fit for planting, and shellfish are about the only edible thing to be found. With little food and less shelter, probably half of the hundreds of Indians confined on Deer Island died of starvation or exposure during the relentless winter of 1675-76. When John Eliot visited them in December, he could only report with horror, “The Island was bleak and cold, their wigwams poor and mean, their clothes few and thin.”
But many Indians had reason to fear more than death: slavers had been known to steal Indians off Deer Island to trade in Barbados or Jamaica, and soon the authorities might begin to sanction such trading. Deer Island might become simply a stepping-stone to a slave ship. None of this was lost on Christian Indians awaiting the arrival of English soldiers to march them to Boston or on enemy Indians hoping to recruit new forces. Perhaps predictably, on one crisp day in November 1675, before the English soldiers arrived, a party of Nipmuck Indians who had allied with Philip against the English, came to the Christian Indian town of Hassanamesit (now Grafton) and told its townspeople to “go with them quietly” asking them, in effect, to join their enemies. The Nipmucks told the town’s Christian Indian minister, Joseph Tuckapewillin, and his parishioners, “If we do not kill you,” the English will “force you all to some Island where you will be in danger to be starved with cold and hunger, and most probably in the end be all sent out of the country for slaves.” Faced with this bleak alternative, Tuckapewillin and the people of Hassanamesit joined the Nipmucks. Loyalty is a powerful passion. Joseph Tuckapewillin felt such loyalty to the English that just a few weeks after joining the Nipmucks, he began plotting his escape. That winter Tuckapewillin met secretly with a Christian Indian named Job Kattenanit, whom the Massachusetts Council had temporarily released from confinement on Deer Island to travel among the Nipmucks as a spy. In February 1676, Kattenanit wrote to the Massachusetts Council, reporting that “in my jorny I found my 3 children with the enimy together with some of my friends; that continue their fidelity to God & to the English & do greatly mourn for their condition & longe desire to returne to the English.” Kattenanit and Tuckapewillin agreed to meet in March, return together to Boston, and rescue their families. Tuckapewillin was to bring with him his wife and children, as well as Kattenanit’s three children, held captive among the Nipmucks. But the plan was thwarted when Tuckapewillin and his companions were captured outside of Marlborough by an English captain who refused to believe that they were trying to escape to the English, rather than away from them. In Marlborough, the Christian Indian refugees were so harassed and abused that several ran off and escaped into the woods, probably regretting ever having left the Nipmucks in the first place. (Tuckapewillin’s own wife left, too, abandoning an unweaned infant.)
ABANDONED IN BOSTON
Brought to Boston to be shipped to Deer Island, Tuckapewillin was allowed to meet briefly with his former teacher, the Reverend Eliot, to whom he expressed his undying loyalty, declaring, “I thought within myself it is better to die than to fight the church of Christ.” Knowing that he now had a home neither among the Nipmucks nor among the English, Tuckapewillin told Eliot, “Oh Sir I am greatly distressed this day on every side. I have no where to look but up to God in Heaven to help me.”
Joseph Tuckapewillin might look to God, but many of his neighbors decided to remain with the Nipmucks, fighting furiously against the English. Tuckapewillin’s own brother stayed with the enemy, responding only to a promise of amnesty at the end of the war. Most of the people of Hassanamesit probably died in the fighting or were captured and sold as slaves. Indians in other praying towns made their own painful choices. The Christian Indians of Wamesit (near Chelmsford) decided to simply abandon their town and avoid being caught between the war’s combatants. In November 1675, before Massachusetts soldiers could arrive to march them to Deer Island or the Nipmucks could force them to join the enemy, the Wamesit Indians packed up their wigwams, their families, and their goods and fled to northern New England, leaving only a note: “As for the Island, we say there is no safety for us, because many English be not good, and may be they come to us and kill us.”
They were right to be afraid. Had not Abram Hill’s plan been foiled in February 1676 by Thomas Shepard’s tip-off, the Indians on Deer Island might well have been butchered in the night, under the scant light of a winter moon. By the middle of the nineteenth century, interest in King Philip had revived.
Meanwhile, the very same day Shepard informed the Massachusetts Council of Hill’s plan, Edward Page told the authorities a different story. Page reported that he had been on Moon Island in early February when “there came a boat fleet of Indians” from Deer Island to shore, apparently looking to steal guns and ammunition from an English house. Page eyed the council members and warned them ominously, “I have inteligence that the indians have sayd that when the spring comes they will make Boston, especially the magistrates, pay deare for the sundry hours they have been kept there.”
By midwinter of 1676, reports such as Page’s had convinced the people of Boston that confinement on Deer Island was too good a punishment for such treacherous Indians. Now, in a kind of twisted logic, the Indians’ confinement itself justified further, harsher measures. As the colonists reasoned, since the Indians had suffered so long on the island, surely any loyalty they might once have had to the English had eroded. Indians, Christian or otherwise, could never again be trusted. Why then not send them farther away, into slavery in Barbados perhaps? On February 22 a group of nervous Bostonians petitioned the Massachusetts Council, urging that the Christian Indians be removed “to some place farther more from us.” The Council, “having seriously considered the state of the Indians now Confyned to dear Island” for a week, ordered that guards be posted on the island to prevent both Indians from escaping and slavers from capturing them, and also that all the Indians be put to work, “some to spining, others to breaking up land to plant on, others to get fish & clams.”
But the condition of the Indians living on the island grew only worse. In March they were “in great distress for want of food.” By early May the Massachusetts Council, “considering the present distressed condition of the Indians at the island, they being ready to perish for want of bread, & incapacitated to make provision for the future,” ordered a man with a boat to try to help the Indians catch fish offshore. Joseph Tuckapewillin, watching the fishing from the beach, might have prayed for bounty, but surely this was paltry fare.
DELIVER US FROM EVIL
The continued sufferings of the Indians on the island, combined with the colonists’ new victories in the war, made many in Boston more merciful as spring progressed. One Bostonian put it, “God was pleased to mollify the hearts and minds of men towards them, little and little.” Finally, in late May, as the tide of war turned and it became certain that Philip’s forces would never reach Boston, those Indians who had survived the winter were released. Their “deliverance” may have been, as an observer claimed, “a jubilee to those poor creatures,” but over half of the Christian Indians confined to Deer Island had died during the winter, and many no doubt were too sick to enjoy their liberty for long. Joseph Tuckapewillin and Job Kattenanit may have been among the survivors, but if so, they, like all the Indians released from Deer Island, still had to worry about being confused for an enemy Indian and sold into slavery.
The story of Deer Island has only recently become familiar to most Americans, even to most Bostonians. But in the early 1990s, Native Americans in New England began staging protests at Deer Island, opposing the construction of a sewage treatment center there. And today many are protesting the inclusion of the island in the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. A heated battle is raging between those who wish to preserve Deer Island as a sacred site, isolated from the public, and those who wish to open the island to tourists and to share its history with them. But whether or not a public monument is built on Deer Island to commemorate the Christian Indians who died there, the story of the island, and of King Philip’s War, is worth telling and worth remembering. Because, most of all, it is the story of what happened after that first Thanksgiving in 1621, when Philip’s father, Massasoit, famously welcomed the Plymouth Pilgrims. Half a century later, Philip waged a bloody war against the English, attempting to destroy them, but finding instead that it was his people—Christian and non-Christian alike—who were nearly destroyed. And even if Abram Hill’s ragtag band of would-be cutthroats never did manage to massacre the Indians on Deer Island, King Philip’s War left a bloody stain on the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. “Come Over and Help Us,” indeed.
We thank Bostonia Magazine for permission to reproduce this article. _
Jill Lepore , CAS assistant professor of history is the author of The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, published by Knopf.