Hiding in Plain Sight: Legacies of Colonization in New England and the 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower

By Christoph Strobel

Mayflower II, a repli­ca of the orig­i­nal Mayflower docked at Ply­mouth, Massachusetts

Ear­ly in Novem­ber 1620, after a rough Atlantic cross­ing of about two months, an aging ship called Mayflower arrived in the coastal waters of what we today call Cape Cod Bay. By mid-Decem­ber, the colonists had cho­sen a site they called Ply­mouth, which is about 40 miles south of the cur­rent city of Boston. Although Eng­lish col­o­niza­tion had begun fur­ther south in the Chesa­peake Bay area over a decade ear­li­er – not to speak of even ear­li­er Span­ish and French efforts – the arrival of the Mayflower is fre­quent­ly imag­ined by many in Amer­i­can main­stream soci­ety as the found­ing moment of the Unit­ed States. Large­ly spurred and pop­u­lar­ized by the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day, this found­ing myth all too often min­i­mizes the impact of col­o­niza­tion on the indige­nous peo­ples of the region; theirs is a his­to­ry that hides in plain sight.

Before Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion, Ply­mouth was an indige­nous town called Patux­et – in fact the Wampanoag Indi­ans often referred to Ply­mouth by that name in their inter­ac­tions with the colonists. In 1605, just fif­teen years pri­or, the famous French explor­er and founder of the colony of New France, Samuel de Cham­plain, had trav­eled through the area and described Patux­et as a vibrant and pros­per­ous com­mu­ni­ty. When the Eng­lish colonists arrived in 1620, how­ev­er, they encoun­tered a much dif­fer­ent scene. Their jour­nals described aban­doned Native Amer­i­can hous­es (wetus), farm fields, and scat­tered human remains. The indige­nous peo­ples in the North­east then and now believe in the impor­tance of bury­ing their dead and the cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance of bur­ial sites; thus, the Eng­lish descrip­tions of stum­bling over human bones and skulls indi­cates the extent of the cat­a­stro­phe that over­came Patux­et. Through­out the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od, dis­eases from Afro-Eura­sia were intro­duced and ripped through Native Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties across the West­ern Hemi­sphere with dev­as­tat­ing impact. The out­break of the pan­dem­ic must have been so calami­tous that the Patux­et had been unable, or too scared, to bury their relations.

Arguably, the most cen­tral Native Amer­i­can play­er in the pop­u­lar accounts of Ply­mouth is Tisquan­tum – bet­ter known as Squan­to, a diminu­tive ver­sion of his name. As Amer­i­can ele­men­tary chil­dren learn ear­ly on, Tisquan­tum taught the Eng­lish colonists how to farm and sub­sist in New Eng­land using Native crops and agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices. He also taught Eng­lish colonists to nav­i­gate south­ern New England’s dan­ger­ous shoals and water­ways (he actu­al­ly died dur­ing one of those mis­sions in Novem­ber 1622).

Tisquantum’s use­ful­ness to the colonists is the stuff of children’s books and 3rd grade Thanks­giv­ing per­for­mances, but his very use­ful­ness to the colonists hints at a much larg­er and dif­fi­cult sto­ry. How did Tisquan­tum learn Eng­lish well enough to com­mu­ni­cate with the colonists? The answer: His lan­guage acqui­si­tion is tied to one of colo­nial New England’s most cen­tral and hid­den insti­tu­tions – slav­ery. Tisquan­tum was among hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands, of Native Amer­i­cans in the coastal north­east who had been cap­tured and sold on the Atlantic slave mar­kets before Ply­mouth Colony had been estab­lished. Tisquan­tum, through var­i­ous con­tin­gen­cies, did the almost impos­si­ble: He made his way back to New Eng­land. This, how­ev­er, was an unusu­al des­tiny for indige­nous peo­ple cap­tured dur­ing a slave raid, as most of them per­ished in the emerg­ing Atlantic Slave Complex.

Slav­ery con­tin­ued to have an impact after the estab­lish­ment of Eng­lish colonies in New Eng­land. Through­out their con­flicts with Native Amer­i­cans in the 17th cen­tu­ry, the Eng­lish sold thou­sands of indige­nous pris­on­ers of war into Atlantic slav­ery. At least 1,000 – maybe as many as 2,000 – were cap­tured and sold dur­ing King Philip’s War, the bru­tal con­flict that broke out between 1675 and 1678. Native Amer­i­cans were also used as slaves with­in New Eng­land. After the Pequot War in the 1630s, New Eng­lish colo­nial elites intro­duced sev­er­al hun­dred Pequot war cap­tives as ser­vants into the colony. The debate about what to do, how to treat, and how to define these pris­on­ers of war influ­enced the larg­er debate about the def­i­n­i­tion and imple­men­ta­tion of slav­ery. More­over, sev­er­al Pequot pris­on­ers were exchanged for enslaved peo­ple of African ori­gin. In fact, the Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony was the first Eng­lish colony to legal­ize slav­ery in the 1640s. While peo­ple of African ori­gin would play a cen­tral role in the lat­er his­to­ry of slav­ery in New Eng­land, the major­i­ty of those enslaved in the region through­out the 17th cen­tu­ry were peo­ple of indige­nous descent. Their bondage con­tin­ued even with the increas­ing use of enslaved Africans as a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of Native Amer­i­cans of New Eng­land remained trapped in sys­tems of slav­ery and servi­tude well into the 19th century.

Pho­to cred­it: Christoph Strobel

Ear­li­er this year, I wrote about the seal of the Com­mon­wealth of Mass­a­chu­setts and the ques­tions it rais­es about the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Native Amer­i­cans – cer­tain­ly anoth­er lega­cy of col­o­niza­tion. The state mot­to on the flag – “by the sword we seek peace” – reveals yet anoth­er lega­cy hid­den in plain sight and one that many res­i­dents in New Eng­land rarely con­sid­er. In the 17th and 18th cen­turies, a series of wars, mil­i­tary cam­paigns, and mas­sacres enabled the dis­pos­ses­sion and eth­nic cleans­ing of indige­nous peo­ples. Through­out var­i­ous con­flicts, New Eng­land author­i­ties offered sig­nif­i­cant pay­ments for Native Amer­i­can scalps includ­ing those of women and chil­dren. More­over, two stat­ues – one in Boscawen, New Hamp­shire (see pic­ture on the right), the oth­er in Haver­hill, Mass­a­chu­setts – have been erect­ed to cel­e­brate Han­nah Dus­ton, a cap­tive who had killed and scalped ten Native Amer­i­cans, six of them chil­dren, two women, and one old man. (Dus­ton and her two allies first dis­patched the one male of fight­ing age while he and the oth­er nine slept).

As a result of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, the Dus­ton stat­ues have been a source for some con­tro­ver­sy in recent months (as you can clear­ly see in the above pic­ture) and have spurred debates about issues of race, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and the com­mem­o­ra­tion of an often vio­lent and for­got­ten colo­nial past.

Anoth­er lega­cy of col­o­niza­tion is the myth in main­stream soci­ety, pop­u­lar­ized in the 18th and 19th cen­turies, that states that Native Amer­i­cans ‘van­ished’ in New Eng­land. But here again, it was more about indige­nous peo­ples “hid­ing in plain sight” of those who refused to see them. Despite over 400 years of col­o­niza­tion, wrought by the lega­cies of slav­ery, dis­pos­ses­sion, pover­ty, racism, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the ter­mi­na­tion of trib­al sta­tus, indige­nous peo­ples con­tin­ue to make their homes all over the north­east­ern Unit­ed Sates.

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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. In his free time, Christoph loves to spend time out­doors, explor­ing the many beau­ti­ful sites of New Eng­land with his family.