(September 27, 2018) I apologize for the length of time since my last post; Hurricane Florence disrupted my rhythm — my home is fine thankfully.
From the comfort of my home, peering down the periscope of time back to my ancestors’ lives more than 340 years ago is sobering. It is certainly not the history lessons I was taught in school. One truth is timeless and seems to be present in all places — war is hell. War is disruptive. War is brutal. And war inflicts damage that lasts for generations.
Since I last wrote, I have spent time trying to locate any of my ancestors who held indigenous people captive and enslaved during King Philip’s War and afterwards. It is hard to find this documentation since record keeping was less consistent and since some of the records kept have been lost to fire, floods, and other calamity. So, I do not have actual names of actual people this time. But, I know they are there. I have been reading scholarly studies by university-level historians that document these practices; and I have kept a keen eye open to locate my ancestors in these studies.
According to Professor Margaret Newell, who wrote “Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, colonists, and the origins of American slavery” (published by Cornell University Press in 2015), colonists enslaved native people long before King Philip’s War. Enslavement began slowly, was similar in some ways to indentured servitude, and there was vigorous disagreements about how to regulate the practice. Some claimed their goal was to convert the Indigenous people to Christianity, but I think that was a pretext, or convenient rationale for the economic urges of the day. Newell writes that the “employment of Indians as servants or wage laborers was already so prevalent that the Massachusetts Court of Assistants stepped in to regulate the practice in 1631, calling on households with Indians to either ‘discharge’ them or get the court’s permission to retain them. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay both prohibited cash payments to Indians in 1636” (page 43). The population of colonists in 1630 was about 500 — by 1680 it was nearly 40,000. Not all of the colonial residents participated in enslaving Indians or Africans; in fact, Roger Conant (my direct ancestor) who was the first Englishman to build a home in Salem, Massachusetts appears to have opposed slavery. Still, all people alive during that time were impacted by and had to survive in economic conditions that included slavery.
The global trade that New England colonists were building required cheap labor from people who knew how to trap animals for fur, and new how to cultivate crops for production of food. As documented in previous posts, the trade from New England to Barbados, and other Caribbean islands was constant — goods and services were carried back and forth over the ocean and that contributed to the livelihood of the colonies, and to the exploitation of Indians and Africans. The colonists were indebted to those who invested in their “plantations” and had to service that debt with beaver furs, and other marketable goods, for the profits of the investors and for the on-going success of the colonies. Therefore, “Pequot Indian captives represented a crucial source of workers at a time when colonists desperately needed them” (p. 43). Captivity itself is not the same thing as slavery — and ultimately, that status of being deemed “perpetual slaves” was more common by 1650. Amidst the enslavement of Indigenous people, was also the arrival of enslaved African people. The colonial authorities then debated and deemed that “Indian and African servants and their children would henceforth be considered slaves for life unless they had formal contracts for service that specified a lesser term” (p. 46). The vigorous and lucrative trade between New England and the Caribbean lasted for approximately 150 years — to the American Revolution.
The enslaved Indians and Africans worked closely within families and in the development of trades, skills, and agriculture. The working conditions were harsh, and given the long winters in New England, the experience must have been brutal. In addition, the families that formed among enslaved people did not result in those families raising their own children. Newell reports on a couple who were enslaved to different “masters” and they (the enslavers) took ownership of the enslaved couples children alternately. Some of the enslaved people were sentence to perpetual servitude as a consequence of criminal convictions according to the legal standards of the day.
The practice of captivity and enslavement of Indigenous people was one of the major causes of conflict that contributed to the outbreak of war in 1675. One particularly gruesome story reported by Newell is of two men: “Cornelius The Dutchman” and Samuel Moseley (p. 142-143). In the summer of 1675, they killed or captured approximately 120 Indigenous people including a large group of women and children. The captives were later traded in to authorities for payment. Cornelius the Dutchman sold the people he captured to Samuel Shrimpton who was “an Atlantic merchant and one of the richest men in Boston,” (p. 142). They were extremely violent towards their captives (even by the standards of the day). I am looking for additional information about Cornelius the Dutchman, and may have more to write about him in the future.
I will end with this quote from Professor Newell: “Over the course of the war, the Native American population in southern New England declined from eleven thousand to fewer than five thousand. But captives experienced an even more negative trajectory. By war’s end, the efforts of [colonial commanders] had converted more than two thousand surviving Indians into English captives. … Towns and central councils became dealers in Native American human capital, which they distributed to leaders, veterans, and householders, as well as to wealthy investors. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of New England households acquired Indian servants, in many cases their first non-English laborers” (p. 158).
Their first ones.
Their. First. Ones.
Their — possessive pronoun
First — initial experience
Ones — possessions who were people. First people. First Nations.
Jesus wept (John 11:35).