Who were your ancestors?

(August 18, 2018). So, who were the people enslaved by my ancestors during and after King Philip’s War? Metacomet’s wife and nine year old son were held captive and sold into slavery by my ancestors.

“The war in the south largely ended with Metacomet’s death. Over 600 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans had died, including several hundred native captives who were tried and executed or enslaved and sold in Bermuda,” according to this website. The enslavement took different forms: some “surrendered” while others were held captive in servitude for a specific length of time, and others were captured and bound for Barbados and other Caribbean islands as slaves in perpetuity. (For a recently published scholarly study on this subject, I recommend Fisher 2018).

I have attempted to find documents about additional specific individuals enslaved and murdered by my ancestors, but have not succeeded (yet). In the process, I have learned a bit about the communities and the historical records. Therefore, I offer this word of acknowledgement and regret to the descendants.

First, there were many indigenous communities involved in the war: the Wampanoag, Pokanoket, Nipmuc, and Narraganset (Mohicans become involved after Metacomet established a winter camp in New York). Some indigenous groups sided with the English and some were known as “Praying Indians” – those who had converted to Christianity. Each group, it seemed, responded to the growing population of English colonizers in their own way and without the benefit of knowing what the future would hold. Your people were fierce combatants in the defense of your home and your right to exist – because it was your very existence that was threatened by the arrival of my ancestors. While some cooperated with the English, some also fought the expansion of English colonies in order to save your heritage, your customs, you livelihood, your families, and the sacred places of your ancestors. I believe these things are true across the board: I know you had families, and that you taught your children with joy, with discipline, with beliefs and values that serve your communities. I imagine a bucolic scene with a community of people going about your daily activities of preparing food, playing games, teaching important lessons and sharing stories that inspire and entertain. I imagine there might have been on-going and perhaps difficult conversations among you about how to respond to the increasing number of English people building homes and towns. The English used to come and hunt and then leave, so when they started arriving with their families, and stayed; that must have been strange to you. In sociology we call this a couple of different things: rapid social change, and culture clash. Both concepts represent disruptions that are difficult to manage.

My ancestors say that they were looking for “religious freedom” and that might been largely true from one individual to the next, but they were also financially obligated to turn a profit for their investors and to expand their land holdings. I have found many instances in my genealogical record where my ancestors received “land grants” to cultivate their new life and to grow their families. These “grants” actually mean something different to you, I imagine: theft, fraud, deception, destruction, and greed. The so-called “purchases” of your land (with the first documented sale at the place now called “Sachem’s Rock” in East Bridgewater, MA) indicates the culture clash of that time. The English thought of land as a commodity to be bought and sold, cultivated and developed; your ancestors did not share that concept, but agreed to allow the English to build on these lands.  Modern people are trying to make it a tourist destination; and having been there recently, I see it as a solemn place for mourning the losses and destruction that followed. It is a place of reckoning.

Second, I know that after the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived you provided some assistance and yet Bradford and Standish called you savages and killed your people. They tried and sometimes succeeded in converting your people to the version of Christianity they favored. They also used whatever inter-tribal conflicts that may have existed at the time to further drive wedges between your communities because the colonizers stood to gain so much from that tactic. I know that Standish beheaded and impaled on stakes at Plymouth the head of one of your warriors, and Standish was not alone in this grisly practice. I know that the relations between your people and the English were even more complicated with the arrival of 20,000 more English settlers during the Great Migration. When I drive through those towns now and I see the names of places and buildings using your ancestors’ name, I can only imagine what that is like for you to see.

Third, I know you must be extremely strong, resilient, and determined people to survive and grow under such deadly circumstances.  According to Professor Fisher’s research, some of your ancestors may have “surrendered” to the English as a strategy to survive, to continue living, and for their children to continue living.  He writes:

“Being shipped out of the country as a slave was perhaps the worst possible fate, but even local slavery and servitude struck fear into the hearts of Indians and threatened to undermine the entire social fabric and kinship networks of regional communities. Hundreds, if not thousands, of natives turned themselves in to local English governments or English-allied native leaders, hoping to avoid slavery at all costs. But these “surrenderers” often found themselves subjected to similar treatment as enemy Indians, ranging from being sent out of the country, resettled to new, designated areas, forced to serve in English homes as slaves and servants, and having their children forcibly placed as servants in English households. The threat of enslavement weighed heavily on the psyche of New England’s natives, particularly during King Philip’s War. Far from being a minor consideration, the threat of enslavement was one of the key factors when it came to natives fighting and—later in the war—surrendering” (Fisher 2017, p. 2).

And, here’s another excerpt that is especially agonizing:

“According to some reports, there were native parents—even non-combatants—who were so distressed by the prospect of their own children being sent overseas as slaves or being forced into slavery and servitude in English households that, rather than allowing their children to be enslaved, they simply killed them, or gave them over to another native to be killed. Surely this was a radical course of action that the majority of native parents did not choose,” (Fisher 2017, p. 9).

(I can only imagine what you think about the “stand your ground” laws in places like Florida. It must strike you as the height of hypocrisy. Where was that idea when my ancestors were stealing your land, murdering and enslaving your people, and building towns on your sacred lands?)

Finally, I know this is lame and far too late, but I want you to know how sorry I am that my ancestors did this to you and your communities continue to struggle with the impact of these 400 years of contact. It did not have to be the way it was — finer ideals existed at the time, ideals of cooperation and interdependency, but those ideals gave way to a far more brutal pursuit of profit, greed, acquisition, domination, and expansion. The so-called “manifest destiny” was a manifest betrayal of your humanity and your communities, and your families, and your dignity. I am so sorry.

I want to learn more about what became of your people who were enslaved and sent to the islands. When I do, I will write about that too. I would also welcome the opportunity to meet you in person (if you are willing) and to learn more about your history from your perspective. Thank you for reading this.

The legacy:

This war did not spring up on our land, this war was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father who came to take our land without a price, and who, in our land, do a great many evil things… This war has come from robbery – from the stealing of our land.

— Spotted Tail, Lakota Sioux Chief

Fisher, L. D. 2017. Why Shall wee have peace and bee made slaves”: Indian Surrenderers During and After King Philip’s War. Ethnohistory. 64(1): 91-114. doi :10.1215/00141801-3688391.

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