“By the Sword We Seek Peace”: The 1620 Massachusetts State Flag and Legacies in 2020

By Christoph Strobel

was late in June 2015. I was on a trip through the south­ern Unit­ed States and decid­ed to take a quick detour to explore the area around South Carolina’s state­house in the city of Colum­bia. Here, only a few days ear­li­er, Brit­tany (“Bree”) New­some, had scaled a 30-foot flag­pole to take down the Con­fed­er­ate flag, an act that had cap­tured nation­al and inter­na­tion­al media head­lines. This inci­dent was one of sev­er­al notable recent flash­points in the cul­ture wars that rage over issues of his­toric commemoration.

There was a cer­tain irony in my vis­it that did not escape me since I was trav­el­ling through South Car­oli­na to get to Savan­nah, Geor­gia, for a con­fer­ence where I was going to speak on anoth­er con­tro­ver­sial flag – the 17th cen­tu­ry Seal of the Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony. This seal serves as the pre­cur­sor of the cur­rent flag of the Com­mon­wealth of Mass­a­chu­setts. Stu­dents and pub­lic audi­ences are usu­al­ly sur­prised and some­times shocked when con­front­ed with an image of the Seal of the Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony. It depicts a scant­i­ly dressed Native Amer­i­can, cov­ered with only a few leaves. The image also fea­tures a speech bub­ble stat­ing: “Come over and Help Us.”

The cur­rent Mass­a­chu­setts flag is based on the orig­i­nal Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony Seal. It is more famil­iar to stu­dents and pub­lic audi­ences and, at first glance, may seem more appro­pri­ate. The Native Amer­i­can depict­ed in today’s flag is clothed and the speech bub­ble has disappeared.

Yet the flag, cre­at­ed in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, has sev­er­al dis­turb­ing fea­tures. The body of the indige­nous per­son in the image was mod­eled after a Native Amer­i­can skele­ton found in Winthrop, Mass­a­chu­setts. The face, how­ev­er, is based on that of a 19th cen­tu­ry Native Amer­i­can from Mon­tana. Despite the con­tin­u­ous pres­ence of indige­nous peo­ples in the region, white New Eng­lan­ders, by the 19th cen­tu­ry, had either come to believe that Native Amer­i­cans had dis­ap­peared from the North­east or main­tained that those who remained were not “Indi­an” enough anymore.

Anoth­er curi­ous choice in the depic­tions is the sword hang­ing over the head of the indige­nous per­son. This sword is based on Miles Standish’s weapon. Stan­dish served as the mil­i­tary advi­sor to the Puri­tans on the Mayflower and after­wards as the com­man­der of Ply­mouth colony. Under his lead­er­ship, dur­ing the first vio­lent encounter with the Mass­a­chu­setts, sev­er­al Native Amer­i­cans were killed, and one fighter’s head was cut off and dis­played out­side of Ply­mouth. The sev­er­ing and pik­ing of heads was not a one-time occur­rence dur­ing the Puri­tan col­o­niza­tion of New Eng­land. It was a des­tiny shared by sev­er­al Native lead­ers, such as Meta­comet, known to the Eng­lish as King Philip, who led a mil­i­tant resis­tance move­ment against the New Eng­lish colonies in the 1670s. Metacomet’s belt was used as the mod­el for the one on the flag, and his head was dis­played out­side of Ply­mouth for two decades after his killing. Such his­toric inci­dents make the place­ment of the sword above the head par­tic­u­lar­ly cringe wor­thy. More­over, the mot­to inscribed on the flag reads in Latin: “By the sword we seek peace.”

“Christoph Stro­bel lec­tur­ing on the Mass­a­chu­setts State Flag and Seal.” Pho­to Cred­it: Aliali Sil­ve­rio Belkus

While the flag of Mass­a­chu­setts receives lit­tle nation­al or inter­na­tion­al atten­tion, it nonethe­less rais­es impor­tant ques­tions about the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Native Amer­i­cans that emerges out of com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ries of col­o­niza­tion, race, rep­re­sen­ta­tions, and mem­o­ry. Both the his­toric seal and the con­tem­po­rary flag pro­vide an inter­est­ing case study of the his­toric rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Native Amer­i­cans and the con­tin­u­ous impact those have on con­tem­po­rary soci­ety. As we are com­mem­o­rat­ing the 400th anniver­sary of the Mayflower, these issues of rep­re­sen­ta­tion deserve wider pub­lic aware­ness, con­sid­er­a­tion, and informed civ­il dis­cus­sion. See for your­self how the move­ment to change the Mass­a­chu­setts State Flag and Seal con­tin­ues.

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Christoph Stro­bel is Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, Low­ell, and the author of books, such as The Glob­al Atlantic: 1400–1900, The Test­ing Grounds of Mod­ern Empire, and Native Amer­i­cans of New Eng­land. With Alice Nash, he co-authored Dai­ly Life of Native Amer­i­cans from Post-Columbian through Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Strobel’s essays appear in var­i­ous aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals and edit­ed col­lec­tions. In his free time, Christoph loves to spend time out­doors, explor­ing the many beau­ti­ful sites of New Eng­land with his family.