Saturday, November 28, 2009

Puritan Rhetoric and Native Americans in New England: 1620-1700

The past 3 months I have set aside considerable time to research a subject that I have recently found an interest in. This concerns a recent research paper that I have been writing describing the changing Puritan rhetoric concerning Native Americans in mid to late 17th Century New England. The paper chooses a starting point (1620) an ending point (1700) and a middle point (1675), which I have chosen as King Philip's War to show a linear "regression" of rhetoric used by Puritans to describe the Native Americans. In the most vague meaning of my thesis, I have proved that Puritan rhetoric significantly changed as a result of King Philip's War. In a more detailed sense, New England Puritan ministers used the war as an outlet to reform the Puritan religion by using death and destruction as a fear tactic to bring wayward colonists back to the church.

The earliest examples of English views on Native Americans comes from those shared by Spanish and Portuguese explorers. These men who ventured into the vast wilderness of Central and South America shared their stories of Native "savages" with Europe upon their arrival. Other preconceived notions came from the past experiences of men who led colonization attempts in Ireland. Englishmen who had worked toward the prosthelytizing og unorthodox Irishmen found themselves carrying these ideas to the New World and applying them to Native Americans. The overall idea was Indians were uncivilized and savage and Christianity cannot survive in an uncivilized society. Civilizing and converting Native Americans was key to the fulfillment of Puritan goals in America as well as the physical survival of European colonies in America.

In order for Native Americans to become Christian they had to be educated about Christianity. As most Native Americans were semi-nomadic, staying sedentary for a portion of the year while engaging in hunting and gathering at other times of the year, missionaries could not wander into the wilderness to preach to Indian tribes. Instead, colonists built "praying towns" in which Native Americans could come to the colonists to be taught not only about Christianity but also about how to adapt and live in an English-based society. These Natives were educated by missionaries like John Eliot who believed that Native Americans not only should be converted but treated in a fair and acceptable manner. They were given a place to live, learn and practice their new religion and those who came to the praying towns were not forcibly placed there but instead came on their own accord.

These feelings remained constant up until the 1670s, ending in 1675 with the murder of a Christian Indian named John Sassamon by men of Metacom, also known as King Philip. Colonists tried three men for the murder of Sassamon and hanged all three in a hasty trial. The result were attacks on colonial villages which were responded to by attacks against Indian villaged. For a little over a year the attacks went back and forth getting progressively worse. What sparks my interest is the writings of Rev. Increase Mather and Rev. Cotton Mather. This father and son duo shared similar ideas but Cotton took his father's ideas to the next level, claiming the savagery and brutality of the Indians was far worse than what his father and others claimed. Puritan ministers such as the Mathers, wrote numerous articles, books and sermons on the war and Native Americans; these narratives have been taken as fact though historians now claim that most were exaggerated. For factual evidence regarding the true events of the conflict, we can no longer turn to these sources for information. However, whether these documents are true accounts or not, they were presented and accepted as fact at the time and these documents drastically altered the future of Colonial-Native relationships.

The Mathers presented the Indian crisis as a three-fold issue; retalliation against the colonists for falling away from the Puritan faith, a Native American attack against Christianity and a metaphysical battle between God and Satan on Earth. These ideas overlap and seem to contradict eachother on certain levels. God punishes the colonists for not following Christian teachings while the Natives attack the colonists for being Christian; this doesn't seem to make much sense. Ultimately, Puritan ministers were able to pull the fall-away Christians back to their churches by explaining the war as punishment for their lack of piety. This created a common Christian bond between the colonists. Then, by describing the Natives as extremely savage, brutal and uncivilized, ministers created a common English bond between the New England colonists against the Native Americans. The pressures from land and population expansion should not be forgotten and this was a way to justify this expansion at the cost of Native American lives.

Of course to provide a strong and undebatable thesis, the research for such a project would have to exceed the 8 week limitation that was given.


  1. Matt this is an interesting thesis, however it would be helpful if you sited your sources.

  2. Thanks, I wrote this as part of an upper division history course while in my undergraduate studies so I do have a full written paper with cited sources.

  3. Can actually grab a copy of it here: