By Libby Klekowski
May, 1677. Long Island and Deer Island in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts Colony.
Old men, women and children, the remnants of the Christian Indians in Massachusetts Colony, were at last allowed to return to the mainland. This starving, poorly clothed group of Native Americans had suffered through the winter with little food or fuel and inadequate housing. Why were these people sent to those bleak islands just off the coast of their homeland? What had they done to warrant such treatment?
In 1646, the General Court of Massachusetts passed an Act for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians. This act and the success of Reverend John Eliot and other missionaries in preaching the gospel to the New England tribes raised interest in England. In 1649 the Long Parliament passed an Ordination forming “A Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England” which raised funds to support the cause. Contributors raised approximately 12,000 pounds for investment in this goal, to be used mainly in the Colony of Massachusetts and in New York. Reverend Eliot received financial aid from this corporation to start schools for teaching the Native Americans.(1)
On October 28, 1646, Mr. Eliot preached his first sermon to Native Americans in their own language in the wigwam of Waban who became the first convert of his tribe in Nonantum (near Newton, Massachusetts). (2)
Eventually Christian Indian Towns were located in Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, New Plymouth, New Norwich (Connecticut Colony), and the following in Massachusetts Colony known as the Old Praying Indian Towns: Wamesit (Chelmsford), Nashobah (Littleton),Okkokonimesit (Marlborough), Hassannamesit (Grafton), Makunkokoag (Hopkinton),Natick (Natick), and Punkapog or Pakomit (Stoughton).
These old Praying Indian towns in Massachusetts Colony were situated so they could have been used as an outlying wall of defense for the colony in 1675 during King Philip’s War. Starting with Chelmsford on the Merrimack River, the villages lay 12-14 miles apart and made a natural ring around the Boston settlement. The Praying Indians in each of these villages had fortified themselves against attack from hostile tribes. In company with English forces, they could have acted as scouts to keep an eye on the movements of their common foe. If these Christian Indians had been utilized effectively “in the beginning of the war, many and great mischiefs might have been … prevented,” according to Daniel Gookin. (3)
There were many advantages to an alliance between the English and the Praying Indians. Because the Native Americans knew the territory so well, they made good scouts and guides; they were much better equipped to fight in the forests and could teach the English such fighting techniques as where to set ambushes and how to avoid them. The colonials could “see no enemy to shoot at, but yet felt their bullets out of the thick bushes where they lay in ambushments. The enemy also used this stratagem, to apparel themselves from the waist upwards with green boughs, that our Englishmen could not readily discern them, or distinguish them from the natural bushes.” (4)
In contrast to the English forces, Native Americans maintained silence as they moved through the forests. Colonial soldiers, bunched together, quite often talked as they marched, wore squeaking shoes, or dry leather breeches that made rustling noises, all of which announced their presence to the enemy. (5)
The Praying Indians could have served as an intelligence force for the English. John Sassamon was a Christian Indian who served frequently as an interpreter and witness for both the English and the Native Americans. As early as 1674, Sassamon discovered that his countrymen were preparing for war. He reported this information immediately to the governor of Plymouth Colony but was not believed because he was a Native American. In April and again in May, 1675, Waban, Praying Indian leader at Natick warned the English of Philip’s intentions to attack the colonists. Various Native American sources reported that “when the woods were grown thick with green trees then it [war] was likely to appear….” In August, 1675, the three warriors accompanying the English to Quaboag (Brookfield) Plantation suggested that the local tribes should not be trusted. The English chose to disregard this advice and shortly thereafter the local Nipmuks ambushed them. (6)
According to S. A. Drake, “… at this time if any Indian appeared friendly, all Indians were so declaimed against, that scarcely any one among the English could be found that would allow that an Indian could be faithful or honest in any affair.”(7) Instead of using the Praying Indians as allies, the English disregarded any advice a Native American offered.
Although the colonials did raise a Praying Indian company, composed of 52 Native Americans, on July 2, 1675, and these warriors comported themselves well in the July Mount Hope campaign, a certain segment of the English population distrusted all Native Americans and felt that the Praying Indians would always be more loyal to the hostile tribes than to the English.(8)
By August 30, 1675, the Governor and Council of the Massachusetts Colony, in response to public demand, disbanded all Praying Indian companies, confined these Christian Indians to the Old Praying Indian towns, and restricted their travel to within one mile of the center of those towns and only then when in the company of an Englishman. If a Native American broke these rules, he could be arrested or shot on sight. Most Englishmen were unwilling to reside in these towns because of the prejudice directed toward any Englishman supporting the Praying Indian cause. (9)
Christian Indians were caught between two warring factions: the English and the hostile tribes fighting with King Philip. They pledged their loyalty to the English who refused to trust them and, at the same time, faced the enmity of their own people. Their loyalty was rewarded with such public hatred toward them that in August, 1675,the General Council in Boston began to consider removing the Praying Indians to Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Finally, in October, 1675, the order passed for removal; by December of that year, there were over 500 Christian Indians confined to the island. “The enmity, jealousy, and clamors of some people against them put the magistracy upon a kind of necessity to send them all to the Island….” where they “… lived chiefly upon clams and shell-fish, that they digged out of the sand, at low water; the Island was bleak and cold, their wigwams poor and mean, their clothes few and thin; some little corn they had of their own, which the Council ordered to be fetched from their plantations, and conveyed to them by little and little….” (10)
There they stayed until released in 1677, but the world to which they returned was totally changed. The English had defeated the warring tribes, leaving the Native Americans strangers in their own homeland.
(1) Bodge, G. M. 1906. Soldiers in King Philip’s War. 3rd Edition, p. 391. Reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore,Maryland, 1967.
(2) Byington, E. H. 1894. The Puritan as a Colonist and Reformer. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, pp. 223-226;
Vaughn,Alden T. 1965. New England Frontier Puritans and Indians 1620-1675. pp.246-250. Little Brown and Company, Boston.
(3) Gookin, D. 1677. An Historical Account of the Doings and Sufferings of the Christian Indians in New England in the Years 1675, 1676, 1677. p. 436. Reprinted by Arno Press,N.Y., 1972.
(4) Gookin, p. 441 (5) Church, B. 1716. Diary of King Philip’s War 1675-1676. p. 81. Reprinted by the Pequot Press, Chester, Connecticut. 1975; Gookin, p. 442
(6) Hubbard, W. 1677. The History of the Indian Wars in New England. pp. 60-61, Reprinted by Kraus Reprint Co., N. Y., 1969;
Gookin, pp. 441, 448; Wheeler, Thomas. A Thankefull Remembrance of Gods Mercy to Serveral Persons at Quabaug or Brookfield. pp.244-246.
Reprinted in So Dreadfull a Judgment. R. Slotkin and J.K. Folsom (eds), Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT., 1978.
(7) Drake, S. G. 1841. Book of the Indians. 8th Edition, Book III,p. 10. Antiquarian Bookstore, Boston.
(8) Gookin, p. 442-444; Church,p, 91.The Old Indian Chronicle. Samuel A. Drake. Boston; Gookin, p. 450.
(10) Gookin, pp. 485-486; Bodge, pp. 396-398; Shurtleff, Nathaniel B. (ed.)1853-54. Records of the Massachusetts Bay in New England 1628-86. Vol.5, pp. 57, 64, 84, 86. Boston.