About the Indians: Why Didn’t We Know?

       “The Pequots” Oil Painting by Nancy Griswold, 10” x 20”, © All Rights Reserved

by Mary Ellen Lepionka

So, while the English were at Gloster Plantation and Duncan’s Point, the Pawtucket were in Riverview, where they coexisted more or less until the 1690s. Having found out about this, I wondered why we hadn’t known about it. Why were we told there weren’t any Indians here after 1620? Why are schoolchildren being taught about the Native people of Cape Cod instead? Wampanoags were not even a tribe historically—the name means “Band of Brothers” and was adopted by warriors from several South Shore Massachuset bands in the 1676 war against the English (King Philip’s War) and the resistance movement that followed their defeat. Today’s tribe using that name represents a reconsolidation of survivors. More importantly, the people who lived on Cape Ann were not Massachuset. They were Abenaki-speaking Pennacook-Pawtucket.

Gloucester is less forthcoming on this topic than others, but all the colonists of coastal towns In Essex County omitted the Indian villages from their maps. Town histories and centennial addresses dismiss the subject except in reference to deeds, accusations of mischief, fears of uprisings, and laws regulating commerce. Most town records begin with the quitclaim deed giving them clear legal title to their land, complete with the duly witnessed signatory marks of local sagamores. The word Indian does not appear in Obadiah Bruen’s retrospective account of Gloucester’s founding, written in 1650, nor in John Babson’s history of 1860. In 1895 the publicist Robert Pringle devotes two paragraphs, one claiming that Indians deserted the area before the English came and the other referring to their artifacts and graves dug up here.

“Whether pestilence or other causes led to their final desertion is a matter of speculation. The only evidences of their occupancy were found on the northerly side of the Cape, where great heaps of clam shells attested their former presence. The town was thus spared from the terrors of Indian warfare…” (Pringle 1895: 17).

 The few later retrospective accounts about Indians in letters and diaries—such as Ebenezer Pool’s 1823 recording of his grandfather’s memories—are dismissed as tall tales, unreliably second-hand.

Today we know that “pestilence” was not the whole answer, nor did the Indians annihilate each other through internecine warfare. But we somehow got the idea of extinction, and it stuck. Perhaps it began with the colonists’ need for foundation myths. There had to be heroic founding fathers, superior accomplishments, and “firsts” to be proud of. Anglo-European chauvinism and prejudice against Indians naturally followed.

First Massachusetts state seal: “Come over and help us”

The colonists saw Native Americans as “other” and looked down on them as inferior. European superiority was expressed by every group making contact—with the possible exception of some French—beginning with Verrazano in 1524, based mainly on differences in technology, material culture, religion, and the concept of modernity. The Indians were primitive wanderers, heathens who practiced sorcery and other strange behaviors, and they were naked. Like Adam and Eve before the Fall they did not understand the concept. Attempting to clarify, one sachem asked Edward Winslow, “Are deer also naked?” So it was only natural—perhaps even divinely ordained—that “modern” Europeans should replace the primitive man.

Consider, too, the skeletons in the Massachusetts Bay Colony closet—the scalp bounties, the slave ships, the internment camps—embarrassing facts that, if known, might make us not so proud. The truth is the colonists everywhere made the Native inhabitants unwelcome, discouraged them in every way, and dispossessed them of their livelihoods and lives. How much more convenient to have them simply disappear.

History is written by groups in power—the winners. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian anthropologist, wrote, “Historical narratives are premised on previous understandings, which are themselves premised on the distribution of archival power.”

“The archival power of local texts transformed what happened–a long and continuing process of colonialism and Indian survival–into that which is said to have happened: Indian extinction. Local texts have been a principal location in which this false claim has been lodged, perpetuated, and disseminated. The extinction narrative lodged in this archive has falsely educated New Englanders and others for generations about Indians, and it has been—and is still—used as an archival source itself, sometimes to be taken as factual evidence of Indian eclipse” (Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 1997).

Pequot Village (Now New London, CT)

So, the extinction narrative became immortalized in a story passed down generation after generation, assumed through sheer repetition to be true. New Englanders were complicit in this process, which began with the replacement of Indian place names with English ones and the disbarment of Native groups from legal status. The village of Pequot became New London, CT, for example, and the Pequot River became the Thames. The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made it a felony to speak the name Pequot. The Pequot were massacred at Mystic—Our John Mason and John Endicott were there with conscripts from Cape Ann. Surviving Pequot were shipped to Bermuda as slaves, and the Court declared them legally extinct (they number around 2,000 today).

Assumptions and claims legitimizing erasure included the idea that the Indians had no civilization or history of their own, no religion, no towns, no record of their past. In his 1895 history of Manchester-by-the-Sea, for example, D. F. Lamson, expressing the prevailing view, dismisses the Indians in this single opening paragraph.

“The history of America begins with the advent of Europeans in the New World. The Red Men in small and scattered bands roamed the stately forests and interminable prairies, hunted the bison and the deer, fished the lakes and streams, gathered around the council-fire and danced the war-dance; but they planted no states, founded no cities, established no manufactures, engaged in no commerce, cultivated no arts, built up no civilizations. They left their names upon mountains and rivers…but they made no other impress upon the continent which from time immemorial had been their dwelling place. The record of their past vanishes like one of their own forays into the wilderness. Their shell heaps and their graves are the only remains left to show that they once called these lands their own. They made no history (Lamson 1895: 1).

The dehumanizing wilderness narrative, in which it is right that Indians should disappear as forests are cleared, was expressed as late as 1909 in a scientific article on trees:

“The indigenous fauna increases in a land of aboriginal hunting folk of low culture, but decreases swiftly and surely in contact with civilized men. Aboriginal man is part of the fauna of a region. As a species he has struck a balance with other indigenous species of animals and as such is a ‘natural race’. Like the lower animals, the native man also vanishes from the region of settlement” (Spencer Trotter, The Atlantic Forest Region of North America, Popular Science, October 1909: 387).

Pequot War    

This was the other side of the divine providence argument, expressed in the 1630s by John Winthrop, governor of the colony, and his son, John Winthrop Jr., governor of Ipswich and founder of Connecticut Colony—that the demise of Indians was a result of divine intervention favoring their replacement by the godly English.

As time went on, erasure narratives were extended through beliefs about degeneracy. Indians stereotypically were devil worshippers and hostile to whites. Their status as slaves, indentured servants, debtors, or wards of the state subject to poverty and alcoholism was proof of their degeneracy. People claiming to be Indians could be denied their identity on the basis that they were not pure-blooded or did not speak an Indian language or no longer practiced Indian ways. This was opposite to the one-drop rule applied to blacks, in which one drop of African blood made you black whatever other blood you had in you. For Indians, one drop of white blood did not make you white, but you also were no longer a real Indian. This concept of degeneracy, along with latent racism, may lie behind notions some people have that Native groups in New England today lack authenticity.

In 2010, 2,718 residents of Essex County identified themselves as Native American, most living in Salem, Peabody, Beverly, Middleton, Gloucester, and Danvers, in that order. They include descendants of the people who were living here in 1623 when the Dorchester Company landed at Half Moon Beach. Now that we do know about the Indians here, my question is, will our archive embrace a truer history? Will my grandchildren’s children be able to learn about the Pawtucket who lived here and did not disappear?

4 thoughts on “About the Indians: Why Didn’t We Know?

  1. While Cape Ann settlers may have dismissed the Indians in their midst, some took an active role in bridging the gaps elsewhere when it served their interests. Captain John Lane of Gloucester became the Indian Agent to the Penobscot. He brought a few of their leaders, including the chief sachem, Orono, to Watertown on June 19, 1775, to discuss how they might aid in the Revolutionary war effort as allies against the British. A translation excerpt from the chief was rendered: “The English are a people old and strong; but they are children and weak.”

    The Penobscot asked for a commissary so that they might buy reasonably priced provisions and gunpowder rather than rely upon dishonest traders. They asked that they not be deprived of their lands, and that the timbering of their lands stop immediately. These concerns were specifically addressed. The 1775 treaty promised the colonists would “disdain to make use of unjustifiable force or artifice, to rob their unsuspecting brethren of their rights…and strictly forbid any person or persons from trespassing or making waste, upon any of the lands and territories, or possessions, beginning at the head of the tide on Penobscot river, extending six miles on each side…”

    Twenty-five pounds of gun powder was appropriated to the Penobscot. Before Lane sailed them back, the visitors were given a token of ribbon and a few yards of blue broad-cloth.

    Captain Lane, encouraged by a promised commission, tried to recruit Penobscot for the military. Five Penobscot men enlisted in July to serve in Canada. They were dismissed in two months.


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