A Puritan Hero

Orchard House snowAbout a decade ago, I worked for a few years at the Orchard House Museum in Concord, Massachusetts.  Best known as the home of Louisa May Alcott and the place where she wrote the classic novel, Little Women, the house has an impressive history of its own.  When I was there the 300-year-old building, renovated by Bronson Alcott in the 1850’s, was in the midst of a massive preservation project, so I had the opportunity to see, up-close, some of the details of the colonial construction.  Ever since, I’ve been fascinated not just by how historical houses are decorated, but how they’re constructed.

At that time, I was finishing work on my novel, Mr. Emerson’s Wife, about the Transcendental circle in19th century Concord.  Little did I know that a few years later, I’d encounter the house again, as I researched a 17th-century Concord lawyer for my new novel, Flight of the Sparrow.

John Hoar, the man who built the home that the Alcotts purchased, was the colonial negotiator in the ransom of Mary Rowlandson.  He was the man who escorted her back to the English towns after her release.  Rowlandson writes about him in her narrative, and describes visiting his house on her return to Boston.

Despite his prominence in his own tumultuous time, Squire Hoar remains an obscure figure to us, hidden in the shadows of history. I had learned about some of his remarkable descendants when I was studying the Concord Transcendentalists, but there was little about the man himself – just the tantalizing suggestion he didn’t fit neatly into the Puritan mold.

When I began digging, I discovered a hero.

John Hoar was a principled and independent-minded man, who spoke his mind regardless of the consequences.  He began having trouble with the authorities in the mid-1660s when he tried to expose the judicial corruption of Massachusetts Bay magistrates.  He petitioned the governor for justice and received a hearing in October of 1665.  It probably did not surprise him when his complaints were ruled “groundless and unjust,” since some of the judges he accused were sitting on the court.  But even Hoar was surprised when they fined him and sentenced him to prison—to set an example for any who dared to challenge their authority.

Furious, Hoar stormed out of court.  When he was arrested and hauled back in, his bond was set at 100 pounds (an extraordinarily high fee for that time), and he was disbarred.

The next spring, Hoar petitioned the court for relief and he was released and his fine was reduced, but his lawyer’s standing was not restored.  Though he returned to Concord and his family, Hoar was not a man to remain silent.  He told his neighbors exactly what he thought about the authorities.  He was soon back in court, subjected to more fines, and the demand for a formal apology.  When he was released with a warning, he went back to practicing law – and criticizing the authorities.

In 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out, Hoar offered to protect a group of friendly

Possible site of palisade to protect natives.

Possible site of palisade to protect natives.

Nipmucs who lived near Concord.  He set aside some of his own property and, at his own expense, built a workshop and palisade for their defense, and helped them harvest their food.

Some of Hoar’s Concord neighbors, frightened by the close proximity of natives, even though they were friendly, secretly contacted the army captain, Samuel Mosely, a man known for his brutality.

On a Sunday morning in February, Mosely and his soldiers marched into the meeting house. After worship he addressed the congregation.  He announced that he’d heard there were “some heathen in the town” that he believed were distressing people, and that if they wanted, he would remove them.  Most people said nothing, though “two or three” encouraged him.  So, over Hoar’s vigorous objections, he ordered his soldiers to break down the door and take the Indians.  They followed his orders, destroying Hoar’s property, seizing the Indians and plundering their food and clothing.  The Indians were then marched to Charlestown and sent to Deer Island.

But Hoar was not a man to be defeated.  In late April, he volunteered to negotiate with the Indians over Rowlandson’s ransom.  This was a remarkable act of courage, especially given the tenor of the times.  Even though Hoar was known to the natives, there was no guarantee that he would succeed in his efforts to secure Rowlandson’s release.  In fact, when he reached the Indian encampment at what is now Redemption Rock, shots were fired in his direction (over and under his horse), he was threatened with hanging, and was confined to a wetu for days before an agreement was reached.

But John Hoar had never let fear rule him, and he successfully negotiated Rowlandson’s release.  He returned to Concord and continued to be a thorn in the side of the Puritan authorities.

The next time you’re in Concord, Massachusetts, I urge you to visit Orchard House.  Not only to see the place where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote, but also to honor the memory of a man of persistence and principle—a Puritan hero.


Mary Rowlandson’s “Removes”

Earlier this week, I visited my son in central Massachusetts. Though the day was sunny, they’d accumulated about a foot of snow, which made the thought of walking through the woods (without snowshoes) distinctly unappealing. Yet it brought to my mind Mary Rowlandson and the eleven weeks she spent as captive to hostile natives.  I knew that we were in the general area where Mary Rowlandson’s captivity took place, but I didn’t realize how close my son lived to one of the important locations until I looked at an old map.

IMG_5455The map was the attempt by one author, based on Rowland’s descriptions in her captivity narrative, to locate all of her twenty “removes.”  After attacking Lancaster in February of 1676, the natives marched their captives through central and western Massachusetts, and north into Vermont, and New Hampshire, before returning to release Rowlandson and others near Mount Wachusett.  Each “remove” was a place they stopped and stayed one or more nights.  Rowlandson used the removes as a device to organize her narrative.  The third remove – not far from my son’s home – was the Nipmuc winter encampment at Menameset – two large villages about a mile apart on what is now the Ware River.

English accounts of the time estimated that there were over 2,000 natives gathered at Menameset when Rowlandson and the other captives arrived.  Winter storms had provided the extra security of deep snow.  Rowlandson, who had been carrying her mortally wounded daughter, Sarah, on the forced march through the snow since the attack three days before, was overwhelmed and close to fainting at the sight of the great number of natives.  She was sold by her captor to a Narragansett sachem and given shelter, where she desperately struggled to care for her dying child without the customary support of friends and family or the herbs and medicines she was used to.  Instead, she was repeatedly threatened.  She describes her experience in Menameset in her narrative: “I sat much alone with a poor wounded Child in my lap, which moaned night and day, having nothing to revive the body, or cheer the spirits of her, but in stead of that, sometimes one Indian would come and tell me in one hour, that your Master will knock your Child in the head, and then a second, and then a third, your Master will quickly knock your Child in the head.”  Sarah died of her wounds eight days after the attack, and was buried by the natives in an unmarked grave.

Rowlandson stayed in Menameset for about two weeks, until the natives divided into small groups and fled west, eluding the English soldier who pursued them. It was a harrowing experience – not just for the English captives, but for the native Nipmucs as well.  They had welcomed their allies, the Narragansett and Wampanoag, into their midst, doubling or tripling their population.  But they didn’t have the food or space to adequately support such numbers.  On top of that, much of their winter foodstores had been stolen or destroyed by English soldiers.  They were on the move at a time of year when they normally remained in winter camp.

cropped-oct16.jpgFebruary turned into March and then April and the ice broke up in the rivers, sending torrents of icy water downstream.  But they kept moving.

Although the snow wasn’t as deep in central Massachusetts this week as it was 338 years ago, there was still plenty of it.  And as my husband and I drove along the wooded back roads, I imagined what it must have been like for Mary Rowlandson – physically wounded, and psychologically traumatized, yet having no choice but to walk for days through snow and ice, up and down hills, through swamps, and across rivers in spring flood.  It would have been an extraordinary accomplishment even without the snow.

Imagined Encounters I: Entering the Experience

One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place.  As I’m shaping a novel, I usually do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book.  Here’s a sample, describing the experience of a young Nipmuc boy when he first encounters John Eliot, the 17th century Puritan missionary to the Indians.  This boy will grow up to become James Printer, who became a printer’s apprentice in Boston and helped Eliot translate and print his “Indian Bible.”

I was five when I first saw a coat man.  It was summer and my family had traveled east, following the fish and deer.  My mother built her wetu near a river and planted corn in the flat field behind.  There were other wetus, filled with aunts and cousins.  The camp was laid out in a circle, like a great hoop, protecting all the people.  In the center of the circle was a smaller circle of big stones the men placed there.

I thought the coat men very odd.  They covered their bodies covered in stiff black material, though it was summer when the sun made the earth warm and people did not wear skins.  The village dogs thought them odd, too; they swarmed them in excited circles, barking.

There were two coat men.  My cousin told me they were English, a word that I had never heard, an empty word that had no meaning inside it.

I soon learned that the coat men had other names – Ell-ye-yot and Goo-kin  – and I found comfort in this, even though they were also empty words that had no meaning I could fathom.  But they were proof that these two English were not alone in the world, that they had kin and friends somewhere.

The coat men gave gifts to my father: two knives, a blanket and a string of wampum.  I noticed that Eliot and Gookin were both shorter than my father and brothers.  The one called Eliot had hair the color of a muskrat pelt, not only on his head, but beneath his nose and chin.  He did not dress his hair, but let it fall untended in waves that reminded me of water after a storm.  The other man was younger and sadder.  All afternoon my father and my oldest brother sat with them under a big chestnut tree outside the circle of wetus.

I sat with my mother and helped her shell beans.  I asked her about the men.  They did not look friendly or happy in their strange black clothes.  My mother stroked my hair, which rose in black spikes at the crown.  “Do not worry, Anequsemes, my little chipmunk.  They live far away by the sea.  They are not our enemies.”

I did not ask how she knew.  My mother was wise and understood many things.  She had seen the sea once when she journeyed with her people – the Qunnipieuck – to a  feast hosted by the Pocasset sachem, Corbitant.  She had told me about the short, crooked pine trees of the forest in that place.  She had described the shore of brown sand and the pink and white shells she had collected there.  She explained how the sea was a great lake, a lake so large no one could see the other shore.  It had its own spirit, Paumpagussit.  I tried to imagine the sea but could not.

When I tired of shelling beans, I played with the dog, then wandered up the hill and lay in the grass near the talking men.  I listened to the strange words of the coat men and whispered them to myself.  They were sharp, spiky words.  They sat on my tongue like porcupine quills.  I whispered them slowly and carefully so that they would not cut my lips.

Eliot and Gookin talked with my father and brother late into the afternoon and even though it was not the people’s custom to eat together, all the men gathered around the stewpot and ate as one.  I watched them use pieces of baked noohkik to scoop the lumpy paste from the pot.  Once Eliot looked at me and smiled.   That night everyone slept in the wetu; I curled like a young rabbit against my mother’s back.

On the second day, Eliot began to tell tales of heroes and spirits.  He gathered all the people who would listen and I sat all afternoon with the other children, carving the figures of two small deer into a stick as I listened.  Eliot did not know many words of Nipmuc but made himself understood by signs and the words of the Massachuset and Wampangoag peoples.  He told of Jesus, a strong ahtuskou who lived many years ago in a distant land.  This ahtuskou would come, he said, and the people must be ready for him when he did.  He talked of Keihtan and a god named Jehovah and he said there was only one spirit, not many as we had been told.

The elders listened politely but I saw that most of them did not like the stories because their own were better.

Eliot and Gookin left on the third day and life went back to normal except the people did not stop talking about the two strangers.  The powauws dreamed of snakes and hawks and smoked many pipes of tobacco to cleanse the air.

But it was too late.  The strangers had infected the people.  Sokanonaske, Tuckapewillin’s wife, saw a white porcupine when she was hoeing squash, and Konkontusenump encountered a fire spirit when he walked at night by the river.  The people gathered around the fire and told their own stories to strengthen their hearts.  But they knew the strangers would return.

A Sacred Journey

Deer IslandAt the end of October 1675, in the midst of the hostilities of King Philip’s War, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered an immediate evacuation of Christian Indians to Deer Island in Boston Harbor.  A group of men under Captain Thomas Prentice descended on Natick, the largest “praying Indian” town, rounded up all the inhabitants – men, women, and children – and gave them less than two hours to gather their possessions and prepare for the trip.  They were marched to the Charles River, about two miles from Cambridge, where three ships waited to transport them.  The Reverend John Eliot, of Roxbury, who had been responsible for converting many of them, met to console them and lead them in prayer.  On the morning of October 30th they were herded onto the boats and taken to the island.

At that time Deer Island was forested.  Uninhabited by wolves, it was used by the English as a place for grazing sheep.  Over the duration of the war at least 500 hundred – and possibly more than 3,000 – Indians, most of them converted Christians loyal to the English, were confined there that winter, without sufficient food or shelter.  Forbidden to cut the trees and with shellfish as their only local source of food, many died of starvation.  Others were kidnapped and put on slave ships headed for the Caribbean.

Next Saturday morning, October 12, 2013, a group of Native Americans will launch canoes from Deer Island and paddle across Boston Harbor and up the Charles River to Brighton, Massachusetts.  Among the paddlers there will be Nipmucs, descendants of people who were interned on the 138-acre island.  The trip will last more than five hours across wind-whipped water; it will be a cold ride, even if the weather is fine.

The Nipmucs won’t be making this trip for exercise or recreation.  They won’t be on a sightseeing excursion.  They won’t even be paddling to raise money for a cause.  Theirs is a sacred journey.  They will be reversing the passage their Ancestors took 338 years ago.  They will be carrying the spirits of their Ancestors home.