Naming the Children

BibleYou can often find them in old family Bibles – names of generations of children, often entered proudly soon after a birth. The Bible seems an appropriate place for such a record, especially when it comes to looking at the names of early New Englanders..

In my research for Flight of the Sparrow, I looked into how New England Puritans named their children. We commonly think of Puritans as giving their children strange “hortatory” names, such as “Experience,” “Increase,” “Thankful,” and “Mindwell.” But in Massachusetts Bay Colony in Mary Rowlandson’s time, the children were given traditional English names, such as “John,” “Elizabeth,” “Samuel,” and “Ann.”

I was not surprised when I discovered that oldest boys were often named after their fathers, but what did surprise me was that the oldest daughters were frequently named after their mothers. In fact, in Mary’s generation, between 50% and 75% of firstborn daughters were named after their mothers. Surprisingly, it was actually more common than naming oldest sons after fathers.  childrenMary’s mother, Joan (or Joane) White, followed this custom, as did Mary herself.

It was also common to name children after an older sibling who had died. (This practice continued well into the 18th century.) Mary Rowlandson did this.  Her oldest daughter, (named Mary), died at the age of two. When her second daughter was born, eight years later, she was given the same name.

Interestingly enough, this was not a pattern that was common in England, or in other English colonies, such as Virginia, where firstborn children were usually named for their grandparents and/or godparents. (In fact, in England it was considered inappropriate for a mother to name her first daughter after herself.) This parent-centered naming – especially daughters – seems to have been unique to New England Puritans.

Why this change?

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to worship as they chose but they weren’t trying to invent a new society. They brought most of their English customs with them to the New World. They wore English clothes, built English houses, and even considered themselves members of the Church of England (albeit “purified” members).

One scholar has pointed out that mothers who named their daughters after themselves were breaking a cultural “taboo,” and that something in their religion allowed them to defy the cultural norms. This may have been the importance of “covenant theology” in the Puritan colony, with its emphasis on the spiritual role of parents in the family. Or it may have arisen because the Puritans banished godparents from the baptismal ceremony. They connected godparenting with Catholicism, labeling it “popish” superstition. With no godparents to honor, a mother naming a daughter for herself at baptism was using one way to claim God’s protection.

One thing that became clear as I researched the first few generations of New England Puritans: social changes were almost always carved out of their religious understanding. Whenever they were in doubt about how they should act, individually or as a society, they turned to the Bible. We might frown at some of their practices, but it’s hard not to admire the fact that they always tried to stay true to their faith as they understood it.  And occasionally that faith took them in new and liberating directions that affirmed the power and importance of mothers.


The Praying Towns

WinthropThe Puritans had imagined it would be easy. Fervent believers themselves, they expected the native people of New England would embrace Christianity. It was just a matter of presenting the gospel to natives and they would immediately cast aside their own “heathen idols” and convert to faith in the one, true God. They would kneel and thank the English for bringing them the Word. Wouldn’t they?
Widespread conversion of the natives had been one of the Puritan’s justifications for settling in New England. It was in the royal charter and the governor’ oath. Yet for the first twenty-five years, there were hardly any converts at all. There was no missionary program or even any attempt to launch one. The leaders of the New England colonies were consumed with more pressing matters, until critical voices grew so loud the situation became embarrassing.
But converting the natives proved formidable, choked with obstacles. The polity of the Puritan church didn’t help. There was no central hierarchy; each church was autonomous and answered to no higher authority. And there wasn’t enough money for missionary programs. The Puritans were already struggling to pay their debtors in England for the goods and supplies they needed. Then there was the problem of who could do the missionary work itself. There was a shortage of ministers as it was.
A Puritan minister was called by a specific congregation as a pastor or a teacher (and often as both), and his primary obligation was to the members of that church. He was on call twenty-four/seven. This meant that the only missionary ministers were ones who stole time from their regular parish duties.
Then there was the fact that tribal religious and political leaders rightly regarded mission work as a threat to their power and the stability of their communities. Algonquian languages were complex, unwritten, and tonal, difficult for the English to master. Dialects varied from tribe to tribe. There was also the matter of tribal customs, which required dedicated interaction between missionaries and natives. There was the question of how a minister could effectively communicate the abstract European ideas and doctrines to people who had no context for them.
Finally, in 1646, the General Court of Massachusetts passed “An Act for the Propagation of

Rev. John Eliot

Rev. John Eliot

the Gospel” and soon afterwards, money began to flow in from English contributors.
One minister – John Eliot, of Roxbury – successfully rose to the challenge. With the help of Samuel Danforth, he managed to juggle his parish duties so that he could spend large amounts of time among the natives without forfeiting the loyalty of his English parishioners. He must have been a man of enormous energy and charisma, for he not only preached to the natives, but also founded a school, directed the translation of the Bible into the language of the Massachusett tribe, helped to edit the Bay Psalm Book, and established the fourteen “praying towns,” in an attempt to consolidate converted natives in planned Christian towns.
The “praying towns” were located in a ring around the coastal English towns. The only residents were converted natives and their families. They governed themselves (under the authority of the Court) and led their own Christian worship services. On paper, at least, they were adhering to English customs of dress, labor, and religion. They gave up hunting and become completely agricultural. They lived in square, English houses and follow English marriage customs.
At least, that’s what Eliot’s English funders were told. But perhaps it should come as no surprise that there’s no archeological evidence that the converts actually adhered to these regulations.
The mission to the natives turned out to be a short-lived experiment, lasting less than thirty years. In 1675, King Philip’s War erupted, resulting in the near-destruction of native culture, and the dissolution of most of the praying towns.

Cold Worship

cold2We’ve just emerged from a cold spell here in New England, with the temperatures bouncing between 20 below and 20 above.  I’ve been more grateful than usual for central heating and wood fires, but it got me thinking about the Puritans and how they managed in the winters. While their homes were equipped with fireplaces that, though they were poorly designed for heating rooms, still put out enough heat to warm a person who was standing near them, their meeting houses were not.  Worship was conducted in the cold.

In the late 1600’s, Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston recorded the effects of the weather in his journal: “Extraordinary Cold Storm of Wind and Snow.  Blows much as coming home at Noon, and so holds on.  Bread was frozen at the Lord’s Table.  Though ‘t was so cold John Tuckerman was baptized.  At six o’clock my ink freezes, so that I can hardly write by a good fire in my Wives chamber.  Yet was very Comfortable at Meeting.”

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730)

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It makes one wonder what he meant by “comfortable.”  Perhaps he was referring to the warmth of the fellowship.  Or the warmth generated by many bodies in an enclosed space.  Probably it was no colder than anywhere else.  After all, he was used to sitting in rooms so cold that, even when next to the fire, his ink froze.

There were two services each Sunday, and the entire congregation was expected to be present. It must have been nearly unbearable to sit through a one-or-two hour sermon in sub-zero weather.

There are records of ministers annoyed by the people who stamped their feet and swung their arms to keep warm during the service.  Those who could afford them sometimes brought small metal foot stoves filled with hot coals to keep their feet warm.  But such items were prohibited in some churches, for fear they might start a fire. There is a report that sometimes bags made of animal skins were nailed to the edge of the benches for worshippers to warm their feet.  In some places, people brought their dogs to lie on their feet, which created problems of another kind.

I began to think about what the churches they left in England must have been like.  And it struck me that they didn’t have sources of heat, either.  Most were built of stone and might have been even colder inside than out.  The most they did was keep out the wind.  So people simply wore their outdoor clothing when they worshipped in the winter.

The more I’ve researched the Puritans the more I’ve been struck by how little their lives differed from those of the friends and relatives they’d left behind in England.  The only difference was that in New England the winters were generally colder.

In other words, people simply expected to be cold in winter – wherever they were.  It was an unremarkable part of life.  And, no doubt, it made the arrival of spring all the more appreciated.

Of Possets and Pompions: More from the Puritan Pantry

tableWhen I was writing Flight of the Sparrow, I spent many happy hours researching 17th century food customs. 

One of the earliest written recipes from New England is for “stewed pompion.”  (“Pompion was a term used for both pumpkins and squash.)  It was known as a “standing dish” because it was eaten with nearly every meal. (The recipe included a warning that this dish “provokes urine extremely and is very windy.”)

Slice ripe pompions, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stewed enough, it will look like baked apples.  Dish, putting butter to it, and a little vinegar (with some spice, as ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh.

A modern version, developed by experts at Plimoth Plantation, is easier to follow in the 21st century:

pumpkinStewed Pompion

4 cups of boiled squash, roughly mashed

3 tablespoons of butter

2 to 3 teaspoons of cider vinegar

1 to 2 teaspoons of ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon of salt

Heat all ingredients together over medium heat.  Adjust seasonings to taste and serve hot.

Another food that intrigued me was a “posset.”  A posset was a frothy hot drink made from curdled milk, eggs, ale or wine, and spices.  It was often used as a remedy for mild illness, such as a cold. Possets were served in posset pots, which usually had two handles and a spout. A well-made posset had three layers: the top was foam, or “grace;” the middle was a smooth spiced custard; and the bottom was the alcoholic liquid.  The grace and custard were eaten with a spoon and the “sack” or alcohol at the bottom was sucked through the spout.

Here’s a posset recipe from 1671, followed by two modern versions:

Take a pottle of cream, and boil in it a little whole cinnamon, and three or four flakes of mace.  To this proportion of cream put in 18 yolks of eggs, and 8 of the whites; a pint of sack; beat your eggs very well and then mingle them with your sack.  Put in 3/4 of a pound of sugar into the wine and eggs, with a nutmeg grated, and a little beaten cinnamon.  Set the basin on the fire with the wine and eggs and let it be hot.  Then put in the cream boiling from the fire, pour it on high, but stir it not; cover it with a dish, and when it is settled, strew on the top a little fine sugar mingled with three grains of ambergris, and one grain of musk, and serve it up.


Posset pot, Netherlands, Late 17th or early 18th century, Tin-glazed earthenware painted in blue V&A Museum no. 3841-1901[1] Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Posset pot, Netherlands, Late 17th or early 18th century, Tin-glazed earthenware painted in blue V&A Museum no. 3841-1901[1] Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1 quart of whipping cream

1 pint of ale

10 medium egg yolks

4 medium egg whites

1 cup sugar (or less according to your preference)

1 tsp. grated nutmeg

In a large stew pan combine the cream and ale and whip them together gently with a whisk.

In a mixing bowl vigorously whip your egg whites until very frothy. Add the egg yolks to the whites and continue to whip until very well blended and add to the cream and ale.

Add the sugar and nutmeg. Over a medium heat cook the mixture, stirring all the while, until it thickens. This should not be runny and not a thick custard either.

It can be served from a small punch bowl to individual bowls or in glasses.

 Sack Posset

1/2 cup sugar

2 qts. milk

4 egg yolks, beaten

4 cups medium sweet sherry

Grated nutmeg or powdered cloves

Add sugar to milk in a saucepan. Mix well and heat to just barely scalding. Beat in the egg yolks. Stir in the sherry. Serve warm in punch cups, dusted lightly with nutmeg or cloves. 


The Forgotten War

ImageWe Americans like to remember our wars, especially the wars we win.  We celebrate Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and label those who came of age during World War II as our “greatest generation.”  References to those who sacrificed their lives in our many wars are a part of every political speech.  It’s sometimes said that every generation of Americans has its own war.  But one of our earliest and most transformative wars is left out of our history books.  And even though it is, to this day, the bloodiest war per capita that’s ever been waged on American soil, most of us have never even heard of it.

King Philip’s War began in June of 1675, fifty-five years after the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England.  A lot had happened in that half century, most significantly the Great Migration of Puritans from England.  They came by the thousands, fleeing the hostile political and religious climate in England. Whole families boarded ships setting sail for New England and the West Indies.  Between 1630 and 1640, 20,000 settled in towns along the New England coast.  They were literate, educated, and pious people who risked their lives and health to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to pursue religious freedom.  They wanted to be free of English religious restrictions and to worship in the way they chose.  And they wanted land.

It’s estimated that there were about 7,000 natives living in New England at the time the Pilgrims landed.  Not long before 1620 there had been tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands more.  The population had recently been devastated by European diseases, carried by fishermen who’d been visiting the New England coast for nearly a hundred years.

The Puritans saw the unused (“unimproved”) land – the remnants of native fields and villages – and believed that God had “opened” the way for them. They quickly settled in.  As their families expanded and more and more people flooded in from England, they sought to expand their land holdings through barter, trade, and the English King’s charters.

The natives who had occupied this land for millennia were not a unified group, but an assortment of tribes loosely linked by a family of similar languages usually labeled “Algonquian.” These tribes had a long history of shifting alliances and political tensions.  When the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit, befriended the Pilgrims, he was acting strategically.  He viewed the English as allies who would help strengthen his people against their Narragansett enemies.  With his death in 1661, and the passing of the sachem role to his son, Wamsutta, the era of peace between the colonists and natives drew to a close.

Metacomet (a.k.a. Philip) was Massasoit’s second son; he took over as sachem when Wamsutta died suddenly after a brief imprisonment in Plymouth.  His warriors blamed the colonists and pressured Metacomet to go to war against the English.  When the body of one of his advisors was later found under the ice in a pond, three Wampanoag men were arrested, tried, and executed.

Soon after, a group of Wampanoag warriors – probably without Metacomet’s approval – raided several English homes in Swansea, set two of them on fire, and killed nine colonists in retribution. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, which were separate colonies at the time, quickly united and dispatched several companies to destroy Montaup, Metacomet’s base of operation.  Metacomet made a daring escape north, and eventually united with the Pocasset, Nipmuc and even the Narragansett, (who had long been the Wampanoags’ traditional enemies) to drive back the colonists.

Though the war lasted until the spring of 1678, the worst hostilities were over by August, 1676, when Metacomet was killed .  The toll in human life was high on both sides; it’s estimated that the English lost about 800 people out of a population of 52,000.  The natives, however, fared far worse.  One source estimates that about 3,000 natives were killed in battle, out of a total population of 20,000.  More were sold into slavery or “relocated” in widely scattered places throughout New England.

After the war the English colonists were no longer motivated to continue pursuing peaceful coexistence with native tribes.  They firmly established themselves as the dominant culture in the region.  It was a pattern that would be repeated many times in the years to come as Americans confronted indigenous people.

They say that those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it.  It’s past time that we remember King Philip’s War.  Though it’s too late to restore the Wampanoag and other native people to their full strength and power, it’s still appropriate for us to learn and take to heart the lessons of this forgotten war.