Imagined Encounters II: On the Trail

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 do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book. This passage imagines the experience of Wowaus (James Printer) as he accompanies other Nipmucs through their territory in the late winter of 1676, fleeing the English soldiers. (See Chapter Eleven in Flight of the Sparrow for Mary Rowlandson’s perspective on these events.)

He is hungry; they are all hungry. There are only scraps to eat; no one has had time to hunt, and they can carry only some of the few winter stores that are left. He knows this hunger well; it is familiar to him, familiar to all Nipmuc. That is the way of things – the great cycles of the seasons bring warmth and plenty and then famine and cold. He has learned – they have all learned – how to endure.

But the English are soft. They do not live according to the seasons but spend their days building up stores of grain for the winter. This is a way the Hassanamesit try to follow, a way that Mr. Eliot and his friend Mr. Gookin praise them for, but Wowaus and others worry that it will make them soft like the English.

Even as they walk, he feels his body grow hard like the trunk of a walnut tree that has lost its summer leaves and stands fast against the wind and snow. He helps to carry some of the old ones, who have become yet more feeble because of hunger. A grandmother rides on his back up a long hill through thick trees. At last they come to the Bacquag which is a tumble of ice and white water. He had hoped that it would be frozen, but should have known better. The past three days have been warm enough to melt snow and the river is often in a rage, even in winter.

He, along with other men, fells trees for rafts. There are hundreds who must be carried to the far side of the river, and their time is short. Though he knows Monoco has sent a party of warriors to cover their tracks, it is no assurance that the English will not stumble upon them by accident. He works in a fury, stopping only to drink from the icy river. The cold is a good thing, he knows. It fortifies him, makes him strong. He realizes as he sinks his hatchet deep into the trunk of a small maple, that he is very much enjoying being a Nipmuc again.

It takes them two days to ferry everyone over. The women build wigwams on the far shore and they rest warm for three days and nights. On the second morning, as he walks about the makeshift village he sees the captive woman sitting outside a wigwam, wrapped in a blanket, knitting stockings. Her eyes are red, as if she has been crying or is ill, and there is a bright bruise on her cheek – a slap mark. She has apparently raised the ire of Weetamoo. He smiles. She is a woman of spirit, perhaps too much spirit for her own good. He wonders what she has done.

He watches her from the far side of a wigwam; he sees her sense that she is being watched, sees her head come up and her eyes skitter over the people nearby, but she does not see him, he is certain.

He considers approaching her and decides not to. There is something very sweet in watching over her this way. As if he is like one of Mr. Eliot’s guardian spirits.
A gray dog comes up to him and sniffs his heel. He wonders when they will start eating the dogs. Food is very scarce. The day before, he watched his uncle butcher a horse taken from the English, the same horse he had arranged for the red haired captive to ride. It would be a starving winter, thanks to this war with the English.

The sun drops into the trough of trees on the far side of the ridge and he leaves his watch for another day. The captive Mary sits outside the wigwam, knitting and knitting.

On the fifth morning, just after dawn, the warriors fire the wigwams and flee north. For hours the air is thick with smoke and from the ridges, Wowaus can see flames licking up into the trees. By mid-day, scouts report that the English army has reached the Bacquag and it has stopped them, at least for a time. Apparently they cannot decide how best to cross. Monoco directs his warriors to take the people down out of the hills to a swamp.

Swamps have always been a place of safety; all tribes retreat to them when threatened. The boggy ground is dangerous, and it’s difficult to track people in the thick vines and thickets that run along the ground and reach out to grab a man’s leg or ankle.

They travel as quickly as possible but the trail is narrow and steep and there are hundreds of people, all weary and weak from lack of food. As they descend into a valley the trees open up to reveal a landscape of abandoned English fields. The yellow spikes of old corn stalks poke through the snow. They halt and Monoco sends scouts out over the fields and into the woods beyond. They soon return with the report that there are no English in the area.

The women fan out across the fields to glean what corn and wheat has been left from a long-ago harvest. Wowaus sees the red haired captive pick up a broken ear of corn and drop it into her pocket. She looks around, furtively, then – miraculously – finds another. He sees how tempted she is to eat it on the spot, but something stays her. She has an uncommon resolve for a woman. Later, he sees a young woman steal one of the ears and watches Mary’s outraged accusation. He knows she will not get it back. The young woman is as hungry as Mary, and has two children to feed as well. The other women gather around the captive, mocking her and laughing.

That night there is an expansive joy in camp, as the stewpots are augmented with grain and maize. For the first time since the Medfield attack, Wowaus feels satisfied after eating. He walks through camp, stopping to talk with friends. He does not acknowledge, even to himself, that part of his reason for walking is to locate the red haired captive. Yet when he comes on her, sitting with Weetamoo’s family by a cook fire, he feels a rush of excitement, a small thrill that begins deep in his belly and rises like sap up through his abdomen and chest.

Mary’s face is smeared red with grease and blood from the half-cooked piece of horse liver she is eating. She holds it, dripping, in both hands and tears at it with her teeth. Blood runs from the sides of her mouth and falls onto her apron. She is entirely absorbed in eating, and does not realize he’s watching. If it were not for her copper hair and the paleness of her skin, she could pass as a Nipmuc. He wonders if she realizes how quickly she has become an Indian.

He is certain she does not. The news would no doubt distress her. It has not escaped his notice that the English fear becoming an Indian even more than they fear being killed by one.

He walks on. He is aware of cold bubbles of happiness rising through his chest. He is glad she is becoming an Indian. She will make a good wife; she is strong and resilient and clever.

The Praying Towns, Part II

john_elliot_praying_indians3It seemed obvious to English Puritans that Christian natives would need to be “civilized.” Conversion would require them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and commit to living in permanent villages. They would have to cut their hair in the English manner, and wear English-style clothes. They would be obliged to divide labor along the established English gender lines – men would have to give up hunting and farm the land. The women, who had previously done the bulk of the agricultural work, would be “freed” to practice English housewifery.

The General Court enacted laws to regulate native behavior. They stated that, while it was improper to “compel either by force or by poenall [penal] laws” the Indians to profess Christianity, they couldn’t in good conscience, allow Indians to continue to exhibit certain behaviors they deemed offensive and/or pagan.

Blasphemy was number one on their list – they declared that it would not be tolerated and that any offense would be considered a capital crime, punishable by death. They also outlawed “powwowing” which they saw as the worship of false gods. This was the same as heresy, and subject to severe fines. Natives were required (like the English) to attend public worship on the Lord’s Day, as well as public thanksgiving and fasting days. (There were a lot of fasting days.)

They required that the laws must be read by a court appointee (helped by an interpreter) to all Indians at least once a year. “One or more” magistrates were appointed as circuit court judges whose job it would be to travel from town to town to hear civil and criminal cases and to :carefully endeavor to make the Indians understand our most usefull laws, and those principles of reason, justice, and equity whereupon they are grounded.”

The third praying town, Hassanamesit, was established in 1660, under the following laws:
1. If any man be idle a week, or at most a fortnight, he shall pay five shillings.
2. If any unmarried man shall lie with a young woman unmarried, he shall pay five shillings.
3. If any man shall beat his wife, his hands shall be tied behind him and he shall be carried to the place of justice to be severely punished.
4. Every young man, if not another’s servant, and if unmarried, shall be compelled to set up a wigwam, and plant for himself, and not shift up and down in other wigwams.
5. If any woman shall not have her hair tied up, but hang loose, or be cut as men’s hair, she shall pay five shillings.
6. If any woman shall go with naked breasts, she shall pay two shillings.
7. All men that wear long locks shall pay five shillings.
8. If any shall kill their lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings.
These laws likely reflect the behaviors that the English found most repugnant. It’s worth noting how many of them focus on personal grooming.

Of course there’s no way of knowing how many of these laws were actually enforced. The law designated that power to the village sachems, along with the power to make judgments, impose and collect fines.

Could it be that the Puritans were more concerned with how the laws looked “on the books” than how faithfully they were followed?

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.