John Pory’s Letter

Plimoth Plantation Palisade

Plimoth Plantation Palisade

For three years John Pory served as Secretary to the Governor and Council of Virginia.  On his way home to England in 1622, he stopped to visit the fledgling Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.  A perceptive, scholarly man, Pory recorded his observations in letters two years after the colony was founded.  In his descriptions of the native peoples and colonists in the area, he demonstrated an awareness of the complexities of the two cultures, and the possible challenges to forging a peaceful coexistence. He contrasts New England with Virginia, and finds Virginia wanting.  He praises the New England colonists for their morality and industry, expressing the wish the Virginians were “as free from wickedness and vice as they are in this place,” and admires the strength of their buildings, particularly the “substantial palisade” and “a blockhouse which they have erected in the highest place in town in mount their ordnance upon.”  He comments on the abundance of seafood and the wholesomeness of the climate.  And then he describes the natives:

“The people seem to be of one race with those in Virginia, both in respect of their qualities and language.  They are great lovers of their children and people, and very revengeful of wrongs offered.  They make their canoes, their arrows, their bows, their tobacco pipes and other implements far more neat and artificially than in those parts.  They dress, also, and paint leather; and make trousers, buskins, shoes with far greater curiosity.  Corn they set none in their parts toward the   north, and that is the cause why Indian corn, pease and such like is the best truck [barter] for their skins—and then in winter especially, when hunger doth most pinch them. . . Their babes here also they bind to a board and set them up against a wall, as they do in the south.  Likewise, their head they anoint with oil mixed with vermillion; and are of the same hair, eyes and skin that those are of.”  He also describes the history of the political machinations between tribes and between colonists and natives and is open about the damage created by sea captains who took Indians captive in 1614 and 1620 and sold them into slavery.

Of course, Pory wrote his letter more than fifty years before tensions between colonists and natives had grown to the point of open violence.  But I find his account especially noteworthy because he puts the New England colonists and natives in a larger context.  Even in those days when transportation and information flow was so slow that we would find it unbearably frustrating, he was able to see the larger picture.  He was able to see the virtues and value the practices of people he did not live among.  It suggests he nurtured the seeds of a global mindset—a way of seeing the world beyond immediate, personal interests.  A mindset that we desperately need today.





Letter at the Bridge

Indians Attacking a Garrison House

Indians Attacking a Garrison House

At dawn on February 21, 1676, some three hundred native warriors under the leadership of the Nashaway Nipmuc sachem Monoco, attacked and burned the town of Medfield in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Medfield was a”frontier town,” about twenty-miles from Boston, established to buffer the more populous towns on the coast from the “Indian-infested wilderness.” According to contemporary sources, the natives had infiltrated the town at night, quietly making their way through woodlots and bushes and taking cover overnight. As the Reverend William Hubbard wrote in 1677:  “some getting under the Sides of the Barns and Fences of their Orchards … where they lay hid under that Covert, till break of Day, when they suddenly set upon sundry Houses, especially those houses where the Inhabitants were repaired to Garrisons…some were killed as they attempted to fly to their Neighbors for Shelter: some were only wounded, and some taken alive and carried Captive.”

Seventeen people were killed. One woman was killed while fleeing with her infant. The baby was left for dead, but survived. Another woman, Elizabeth Paine Adams, survived the attack but was killed that night in the minister’s home when a firearm accidently discharged from the floor below. Increase Mather found the incident instructional: “It is a sign that God is angry,” he wrote, “when he turns our weapons against ourselves.”
Forty or fifty buildings were destroyed, although all the garrison houses survived. After plundering the town, the natives withdrew, crossing bridges over the Charles River. It was on one of these bridges that a letter was posted, a letter expertly designed to terrify its English readers:

Know by this paper, that the Indians that thou hast provoked to wrath and anger, will war this twenty one years if you will; there are many Indians yet, we come three hundred at this time. You must consider the Indians lost nothing but their life; you must lose your fair houses and cattle.

Scholars believe that this remarkable letter was written by James Printer, a Hassanamesitt Nipmuc who was apprenticed to the printer Samuel Green in Cambridge. A brilliant and educated “praying Indian,” he fled his apprenticeship when hostilities broke out, and joined Metacomet’s massed forces in what is now central Massachusetts. His letter points to one of the most distinctive differences between the English and native cultures—the value placed on property. While the Indians lived semi-nomadic lives, quickly erecting shelters and discarding them when they were no longer useful, the English spent many of their resources constructing permanent buildings in which to live and house their animals, which they depended on to supply labor and food.

The letter must have sent a chill through its English readers. It signaled a resilience and determination to resist further English incursion. And—more importantly—it revealed an astute and contemptuous grasp of material English values. If the English did not know before this letter, they certainly knew after reading it that their enemy was not the primitive society of barbarians they’d assumed. It appeared their enemy had an uncanny ability to see into their souls.

Did the Puritans Party?

puritan partyWe don’t usually think of Puritans as having much fun in life. The stereotype of them is serious to the point of depressing: grim, sexually repressed, and pious, spending what little free time they had praying and reading the Bible. But, as is usually true with stereotypes, that image doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the Puritans were not ascetics, but embraced joy, recreation and leisure. They wore colorful clothing, not the black-and-white garb that we so often see in modern depictions. They enjoyed good food and drink and celebrated sexual gratification within the confines of marriage. They liked music and played instruments and sang on social occasions. And—sometimes—they danced.

Dancing was a bit of a challenge for the Puritans. The Bible didn’t prohibit it, and Biblical characters, such as David, are described as dancing before the Lord. Since the Puritans looked to the Bible for their behavioral cues, they weren’t about to prohibit dancing. But they were wary of it, because they believed that dancing could lead to “sin and sloth.”

So they put restrictions on it, especially on “lascivious dancing,” which they defined as any dancing in which men and women touched each other. They also forbid any mixing of dancing and alcohol consumption. So dancing wasn’t organized in the early days of the New England colonies. Instead it was done spontaneously at home or outdoors at celebrations. But dancing didn’t go away, and after 1700 the restrictions were relaxed to accommodate mixed dances. Country [contra] dancing became acceptable and popular.

As time passed, wedding receptions became important social occasions, often including dancing. The well-to-do gave dinner parties for visiting merchants. They were careful not to let things get out of hand, but they were flavored with gaiety and relaxation.

After all, the Puritans were people. And people like to party.