UP UNTIL 1630, Plymouth was the only significant English settlement in the region. That year, an armada of seventeen ships arrived off the New England coast. In a matter of months, approximately a thousand English men, women, and children—more than three times the entire population of Plymouth—had been delivered to the vicinity of Boston. In the years ahead, the Puritan colony of Massachusetts-Bay grew to include modern New Hampshire and Maine, while other Puritan settlers headed south to found Connecticut. Adding to the mix was the Massachusetts exile Roger Williams, who in 1636 founded what became the religiously tolerant colony of Rhode Island, a haven for Baptists, Quakers, and other non-Puritans. With Plymouth serving as the great original, New England had become exactly what its name suggested, a New England composed of autonomous colonies. But for William Bradford, who had come to America to re-create the community of fellow worshippers he had known in Scrooby and in Leiden, there would always be something missing.
In 1625, Bradford received the stunning news that the congregation’s minister, John Robinson, had died in Leiden. Robinson was irreplaceable, and a profound sense of sadness and inadequacy settled over the Plymouth church. For all they had suffered during those first terrible winters in America, their best years were behind them, in Leiden. Never again would they know that same rapturous sense of divine fellowship that had first launched them on this quest. Elder William Brewster soldiered on as their spiritual leader, but the Plymouth congregation never warmed to another minister throughout the first half of the century.
Without Robinson, the Pilgrims could not help but fear that their original purpose in coming to America was in constant danger of being subverted if not entirely destroyed. As a consequence, the passion and fervor that had enabled them to survive those first grim years threatened to darken into a mean-spirited fanaticism. Even before Robinson’s death, John Lyford, a minister sent over by the Merchant Adventurers, was cast out of the settlement for secretly meeting with disgruntled settlers who wished to worship as they had back in England. One of Lyford’s supporters, John Oldham, was forced to run through a gauntlet of musket-wielding Pilgrims who beat him with the butt ends of their weapons. When Edward Winslow, just back from a voyage to England, arrived on the scene, he urged his comrades “not [to] spare” Oldham.
In his correspondence and his history of the colony, Bradford did his best to claim that Lyford and Oldham richly deserved their punishments. The Merchant Adventurers, however, remained unconvinced and chastised the Pilgrims for being “contentious, cruel and hard hearted, among your neighbors, and towards such as in all points both civil and religious, jump not with you.” In the years just before and after Robinson’s death, Plymouth lost approximately a quarter of its residents as disaffected Strangers either returned to England or moved to Virginia. Some, such as Oldham and a salter named Roger Conant, found refuge amid the isolated fishing and trading outposts that had sprouted up along the New England coast at places like Nantasket and Cape Ann.
We can only wonder how different the early years of Plymouth might have been if Robinson had made it to the New World. If his letters to Bradford and the others are any indication, he might have insisted on a policy of moderation and restraint—not only with the Indians but also with the Strangers in the settlement. Despite Robinson’s warnings about Miles Standish, Bradford continued to depend on his military officer to push forward the often brutal agenda of what was becoming the Pilgrim way in New England.
About the same time as Robinson’s passing, a new settlement was started just to the north of Wessagussett in modern Braintree. The settlement’s founder was, according to Bradford, “a man of pretty parts,” who quickly decided to relocate to Virginia. One of his fellow investors, a jolly down-on-his-luck lawyer from London named Thomas Morton, opted to remain in New England with a handful of servants, and Morton subsequently dubbed the new venture Merrymount.
As the name of his settlement might suggest, Morton represented everything the Pilgrims had come to America to escape. In addition to being, in Bradford’s words, “a pettifogger [of] more craft than honesty,” Morton was an Anglican who enjoyed reading the Greek and Latin classics and composing his own ribald verse. For Morton, a Sunday was best spent not in prayer but in hunting with his falcon or, better yet, sharing a drink with the local Indians. Instead of building a wall around Merrymount, Morton erected an eighty-foot-high maypole—a gleeful and decidedly pagan proclamation that God was not to be taken overly seriously, at least in Morton’s neck of New England.
Lubricated by plenty of alcohol, he and his men danced around the maypole with their Native neighbors, making a mockery of the solemn exclusivity of the Plymouth settlement. What was worse, Morton’s intimacy with the Indians quickly made him the favored trading partner in the region. He even dared to equip them with guns, since this enabled the Indians to procure more furs.
The Pilgrims had come face-to-face with a figure from a future America: the frontiersman who happily thumbed his nose at authority while embracing the wilderness. One of Plymouth’s residents—Richard and Elizabeth Warren’s ten-year-old daughter Elizabeth—would one day give birth to a son named Benjamin Church, who would have a decidedly Morton-like love of the wilderness and play a significant role in the emerging American frontier. But that was decades in the future. For now, the Pilgrims had no use for anyone who dared to favor the heathen over the godly. Bradford decided to send Standish on yet another raid to the north—not to kill any Indians but to seize this “Lord of Misrule.”
Morton quickly discovered what the Pilgrims had become in the years since Wessagussett. He had already learned from the Massachusett Indians of the viciousness of Standish’s earlier attack and the fear it had unleashed in the region. After being taken by Standish and his men, who “fell upon him as if they would have eaten him,” Morton began to question who were now the true savages in this land. “But I have found the Massachusetts Indians more full of humanity than the Christians,” he wrote, “and have had much better quarter with them.”
Morton wasn’t the only Englishman to be astonished by the vindictiveness of the Pilgrims. In 1625, the former Plymouth resident Roger Conant was forced to intercede in an altercation between Standish and some fishermen on Cape Ann. Conant was so appalled by the violence of the Plymouth captain’s manner that he later described the incident in great detail to the Puritan historian William Hubbard. Echoing Robinson’s earlier concerns, Hubbard wrote, “Capt. Standish…never entered the school of our Savior Christ…or, if he was ever there, had forgot his first lessons, to offer violence to no man.” As Morton and Pecksuot had observed, it was almost comical to see this sort of fury in a soldier who had been forced to shorten his rapier by six inches—otherwise the tip of his sword’s scabbard would have dragged along the ground when he slung it from his waist. “A little chimney is soon fired,” Hubbard wrote; “so was the Plymouth captain, a man of very little stature, yet of a very hot and angry temper.”
A German-made rapier attributed to Miles Standish
In 1624, Holland purchased Manhattan from the Indians and established the colony of New Netherland. Since many of the Pilgrims knew the language, it was perhaps inevitable that Plymouth established a strong relationship with the Dutch colony. In 1627, the Dutch trading agent Isaack de Rasiere visited Plymouth, and his description of the English community on a typical Sunday provides fascinating evidence of just how strong Standish’s influence continued to be:
They assembled by beat of drum, each with his musket or firelock, in front of the captain’s door; they have their cloaks on, and place themselves in order, three abreast, and are led by a sergeant without beat of drum. Behind comes the Governor, in a long robe; beside him on the right hand, comes the preacher with his cloak on, and on the left hand, the captain with his side-arms and cloak on, and with a small cane in his hand; and so they march in good order, and each sets his arms down near him. Thus they are constantly on their guard night and day.
Seven years after the Mayflower had sailed, Plymouth Plantation was still an armed fortress where each male communicant worshipped with a gun at his side.
The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth’s debilitating food shortages. For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims had grown crops communally—the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements. But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done to increase the annual yield.
In April, Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. “The women now went willingly into the field,” Bradford wrote, “and took their little ones with them to set corn.” The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.
By 1623, the Pilgrims had goats, pigs, and chickens; that year Winslow sailed for England and returned with some cows; soon to follow were more cattle and some horses. Despite Winslow’s claim that Plymouth was a place where “religion and profit jump together,” the colony was unable to achieve any sort of long-term financial success. By 1626, the Merchant Adventurers in London had disbanded, and Bradford and seven others, including Winslow, Brewster, Standish, Alden, Howland, Allerton, and Thomas Prence, who had come over in the Fortune in 1621, agreed to assume the colony’s debt with the understanding that they be given a monopoly in the fur trade. The following year, the Dutch trading agent Isaack de Rasiere introduced the Pilgrims to wampum, the white and purple shell beads that quickly became the medium of exchange in New England and revolutionized the trade with the Indians. By the early 1630s, Plymouth had established a series of trading posts that extended all the way from the Connecticut River to Castine, Maine.
After it was started under the direction of the veteran frontiersman Edward Ashley, the trading post in Castine was run by the young Thomas Willett, who arrived in Plymouth in 1629 as a twenty-two-year-old émigré from Leiden. John Howland and John Alden established a second Pilgrim trading post in Maine on the Kennebec River at modern Augusta. By this time, Howland had married Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley, while Alden had married Priscilla Mullins. In 1634 the Plymouth men at Kennebec got into a fatal argument with some rival English fur traders that resulted in Alden’s being briefly detained in a Boston jail. The following year, the French forced Willett and his men to abandon their post in Castine. For Howland, Alden, and especially Willett—who eventually became one of the wealthiest men in the colony—Maine provided a valuable education in the rough-and-tumble world of international trade in the New World.
Despite some remarkable early returns in the fur trade, Bradford and his fellow investors struggled to pay off the colony’s debt. Bradford blamed most of their difficulties on his former assistant governor, Isaac Allerton. Allerton, who had mercantile ambitions of his own, was entrusted with overseeing Plymouth’s relations with the merchants in England, and it eventually became apparent that Allerton was mixing his personal business with the colony’s. As a result of his mismanagement, if not outright fraud, Plymouth’s debts only increased even though the Pilgrims had sent significant quantities of furs back to England.
In truth, it was not all Isaac Allerton’s fault. Bradford, who’d suffered reversals of his own back in Leiden, never had a talent for financial matters, and the colony continued to have trouble with the merchants in London long after Allerton ceased representing them in 1630. According to Bradford’s calculations, between 1631 and 1636, they shipped £10,000 in beaver and otter pelts (worth almost 2 million in today’s dollars) yet saw no significant reduction in their debt of approximately £6,000.
Not only were the Pilgrims poor judges of character, they were forced to struggle with the logistical difficulties of sending goods back and forth across three thousand miles of ocean. Plymouth was an inadequate port to begin with, and financial stability only came to the colony when their principal market shifted from London to Boston, which later emerged as New England’s primary port. Not until 1648, after they had been forced to sell off some of their own land, did Bradford and the other Plymouth investors finally settle their accounts with the merchants in England. It would be left to others to hit upon a way to wealth in the New World.
As Pastor Robinson had suggested, the Pilgrims had lost more than a little of their collective soul at Wessagussett. But so had the Pokanokets. Massasoit had entered into a devil’s bargain with the English. By selling out his Native neighbors in Massachusetts and Cape Cod, he had cast his lot with a culture and technology on which his own people increasingly came to depend. Whether it was iron hoes and kettles, blankets, liquor, or guns, the English had what the Pokanokets wanted. There would be some good years ahead as the Pilgrims eagerly traded with them for furs. But as the beavers and other fur-bearing animals grew scarce, the only thing the Indians had to sell to the English was their land.
It had begun innocently enough in 1621, when Massasoit had given Patuxet to the Pilgrims as a gift. Back then it had been difficult to imagine a time when land would be anything but a boundless resource. The Pilgrims believed that since no Indians were presently living on the land, it was legally theirs. “[I]t is lawful now to take a land which none useth,” Robert Cushman wrote, “and make use of it.” By the 1630s, however, the Pilgrims had begun to take a different view—a change in attitude that may have been in response to the radical beliefs of a new minister.
Roger Williams had already upset the authorities in Massachusetts-Bay by the time he moved from Boston to Plymouth in 1633. In addition to what Bradford described as some “strange opinions” regarding spiritual matters, Williams insisted that the Indians were the legal owners of their lands. If the English were to take title, Williams argued, they must first purchase the land from its previous owners. Williams’s unusual religious convictions soon got him into trouble in Plymouth, forcing him to move back to Massachusetts-Bay. (By 1635, his “unsettled judgment” resulted in his banishment from the colony, and he soon after founded Rhode Island.) Despite the brief and tumultuous nature of Williams’s time in Plymouth, he appears to have had a lasting influence on the colony. Soon after his departure, the Pilgrims began recording their purchases of Indian land.
It’s true that the English concept of land ownership was initially unfamiliar to the Indians. Instead of a title and deed, the Indians’ relationship to the land was based on a complex mixture of cultural factors, with the sachem possessing the right to distribute land in his own territory. But whatever misunderstandings existed in the beginning between the Indians and English, by the second decade of Plymouth Colony, with towns springing up across the region, there was little doubt among the Indians as to what the Pilgrims meant by the purchase and sale of land.
From the start, Plymouth authorities insisted that all Native land purchases must have prior court approval. By maintaining control over the buying and selling of Indian land, the colony hoped to ensure clear titles while protecting the Natives from unscrupulous individuals who might use alcohol and even violence to part them from their property. In 1639, Massasoit and his son Wamsutta confirmed their original treaty with the colony and promised that “they shall not give, sell, or convey any of his or their lands…without the…consent of this government.”
Initially, it appears, the transactions were quite informal—at least when it came to determining the price the English paid for the land. In November 1642 Massasoit agreed to sell a portion of what became the township of Rehoboth. The deed reports that the sachem “chose out ten fathom of beads…and put them in a basket, and affirmed that he was full satisfied for his lands…, but he stood upon it that he would have a coat more.” In 1650, he sold 196 square miles of what became modern Bridgewater for seven coats, nine hatchets, eight hoes, twenty-nine knives, four moose skins, and ten and a half yards of cotton. In 1652, he and Wamsutta sold the future site of Dartmouth for thirty yards of cloth, eight moose skins, fifteen axes, fifteen hoes, fifteen pairs of shoes, one iron pot, and ten shillings’ worth of assorted goods. The following year they sold lands in the vicinity of the Pokanokets’ ancestral village of Sowams for £35, currently worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000.
Today, the sums paid for Massasoit’s lands seem criminally insignificant. However, given the high cost of clearing Native land and the high value the Indians attached to English goods, the prices are almost justifiable. Certainly, the Pilgrims felt they were paying a fair price, and their descendants later insisted that they “did not possess one foot of land in this colony but what was fairly obtained by honest purchase of the Indian proprietors.”
This may have been true as far as it went, but in at least one instance, lands bought from the Indians were subsequently resold at a 500 percent profit. In reality, the system cut the Indians out of the emerging New England real estate market. By monopolizing the purchase of Indian lands, Plymouth officials kept the prices they paid artificially low. Instead of selling to the highest bidder, Massasoit was forced to sell his land to the colonial government—and thus was unable to establish what we would call today a fair market price for the one Native commodity, besides the ever dwindling supply of furs, that the English valued.
We have been taught to think of Massasoit as a benevolent and wise leader who maintained a half century of peace in New England. This is, of course, how the English saw it. But many of the Indians who lived in the region undoubtedly had a very different attitude toward a leader whose personal prosperity depended on the systematic dismantling of their homeland.
As their land dwindled, the Pokanokets continued to be afflicted by disease. In 1634, smallpox and influenza ravaged both the Indians and the English in the region. William Brewster, whose family had managed to survive the first terrible winter unscathed, lost two daughters, Fear and Patience, now married to Isaac Allerton and Thomas Prence, respectively. For the Native Americans, the smallpox epidemic was, in many ways, worse than the plague of 1616–19. Their skin became so consumed with sores that their flesh adhered to the mats on which they slept. “When they turn them,” Bradford wrote, “a whole side will flay off at once as it were, and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold….[T]hey die like rotten sheep.”
And yet, from Massasoit’s perspective, his alliance with the English continued to serve him well. In 1632, the Pokanokets’ old enemies, the Narragansetts, attacked Sowams. The Pilgrims had recently built a trading post near the village, and Massasoit took refuge in the English structure. Standish rallied to the sachem’s defense, and the Pokanokets were soon free to return to their village. The incident at the Sowams trading post appears to have been a pivotal event for Massasoit. As Native Americans customarily did after undergoing a life-altering experience, he changed his name, calling himself Usamequin, meaning yellow feather.
Massasoit had promised on his sickbed always to remember the debt he owed the Pilgrims—particularly to Edward Winslow. And yet, in true sachem fashion, Massasoit never ceased manipulating those around him. In 1634, the year that smallpox swept away so many Indians, he and Winslow were walking together from Sowams to Plymouth. Unbeknownst to his companion, the sachem sent word ahead that Winslow was dead. Massasoit even instructed the messenger to show the residents of Plymouth “how and where [Winslow] was killed.”
By this point, Edward and Susanna Winslow had had five children, including seven-year-old Josiah, the future governor of the colony. Needless to say, the Indian messenger’s news created great grief in Plymouth. The following day, Massasoit appeared in Plymouth with Winslow by his side. When asked why he had played such a cruel trick on the inhabitants, the sachem replied “that it was their manner to do so, that they might be more welcome when they came home.” Winslow may once have saved his life, but that had not prevented the sachem from reminding the Pilgrims that death stalked them all.
Over the course of the next decade, as King Charles and Archbishop Laud made life increasingly difficult for nonconformists in England, an estimated twenty-one thousand Puritan immigrants flooded across New England. With larger, more economically successful colonies flourishing to the north, south, and west, Plymouth had become a backwater.
But if they were now outnumbered, the Pilgrims could take consolation in the fact that the new arrivals shared their belief in a reformed Protestant Church. For the last ten years, the Pilgrims had conducted a virtual laboratory experiment in how an individual congregation, removed from the intrusions of the Church of England, might conduct itself. How much real influence the Pilgrims had on the development of what eventually became the Congregational Church is still subject to debate, but Bradford quite rightly took pride in how he and his little community of believers had laid the groundwork for things to come. “Thus out of small beginnings,” he wrote, “greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise.”
The Puritans staunchly denied it, but their immigration to America had turned them, like the Pilgrims before them, into Separatists. They might claim to be still working within the Church of England, but as a practical matter, with no bishops in New England, they were free to worship as they saw fit. With a clutch of Cambridge-educated divines scripting their every move, the Puritans of Massachusetts-Bay developed a more rigorous set of requirements for church membership than had been used at Plymouth, where it had been assumed since the days of John Robinson that only God ultimately knew whether a person was or was not a Saint. In the years since Robinson’s death, the members of the congregation at Plymouth had resigned themselves to going their own, often ministerless way in the New World, and in the process they had become considerably less jealous about guarding their divine legacy. Now, with the arrival of the Puritans in Massachusetts-Bay, it was up to others to become the spiritual arbiters of New England.
An April 11, 1638, letter from William Bradford to John Winthrop, with a draft of Winthrop’s response on the lower left
Minimal from the beginning, the religious distinction between the “Pilgrims” and “Puritans” quickly became inconsequential, especially when in 1667 John Cotton, a Harvard-trained minister from Massachusetts-Bay, became the pastor at Plymouth. Instead of serving as religious designations, the terms “Puritan” and “Pilgrim” came to signify two different groups of settlers, with the perpetually underfunded Pilgrims and their associates arriving in Plymouth between 1620 and 1630, and the more well-to-do and ambitious Puritans arriving in Massachusetts-Bay and Connecticut after 1629.
The influx of Puritan immigrants prompted the Pilgrims to rethink how the government of their settlement was organized, and once again, Plymouth and Massachusetts-Bay followed a similar course. By the 1630s, each colony was ruled by its own General Court, which included the governor and his assistants and, after 1638 in the case of Plymouth, deputies from the various towns. In addition to passing laws, levying taxes, and distributing land, the General Court probated wills and heard criminal trials. As it so happened, Plymouth magistrates found themselves presiding over the colony’s first murder trial just as the Puritans began to arrive at Boston Harbor.
In the summer of 1630, the profane John Billington fell into an argument with his English neighbor John Newcomen. A few days later, while hunting for deer, Billington happened upon Newcomen and shot him down in cold blood.
Billington had believed, the historian William Hubbard later reported, “that either for want of power to execute for capital offenses, or for want of people to increase the plantation, he should have his life spared.” But with the appearance of the Puritans, the dynamics of the region had changed. By the fall, Bradford had already established a rapport with Massachusetts-Bay governor John Winthrop, and after consulting with him, Bradford determined that Billington “ought to die, and the land to be purged from blood,” and he was executed in September 1630.
That year, the infamous ne’er-do-well Thomas Morton made his way back to Merrymount. Since the settlement was technically in his territory, Winthrop offered to kill two birds with one stone. The Puritans not only arrested Morton, they burned his house to the ground. Evidently, Plymouth and Massachusetts-Bay had much in common.
A 1634 map of New England
Convinced that they had God on their side, magistrates from both colonies showed no qualms about clamping down on dissent of any kind. In the years ahead, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were cast out of Massachusetts-Bay for espousing unorthodox views, and in 1645 Bradford angrily opposed an attempt to institute religious tolerance in Plymouth. Soon after, the Quakers, who began arriving in New England in 1655, were persecuted with a vehemence that climaxed with the hanging of four men and women on Boston Common between 1659 and 1661.
It was the Puritans who led the way in persecuting the Quakers, but the Pilgrims were more than willing to follow along. As a Quaker sympathizer acidly wrote, the “Plymouth-saddle is on the Bay horse,” and in 1660 Isaac Robinson, son of the late pastor John Robinson, was disenfranchised for advocating a policy of moderation to the Quakers.
In the beginning, the Puritan settlement to the north proved a financial windfall for the Pilgrims. What the new arrivals wanted more than anything else were cattle and hogs, which the Pilgrims now had in surplus. Over the course of the next decade Plymouth experienced an economic boom fueled, in large part, by the rising price of livestock. Inevitably, however, the grandees of Massachusetts-Bay began to cast what Bradford felt was “a covetous eye” on the profitable trading posts Plymouth had established in Maine and Connecticut. As Massachusetts moved into the region with outposts of its own, tensions rose between the Pilgrims and Puritans. But as became increasingly clear, the sheer size of what is now known as the Great Migration meant that Plymouth had no choice but to be shunted aside as it watched dozens of Puritan settlements spring up to the north and south.
It was only a matter of time before Massachusetts-Bay’s economic ambitions brought the Puritans into conflict with the region’s other occupants, the Native Americans. In the lower portion of the Connecticut River valley lived the Pequots, a tribe whose economic might more than equaled that of the Puritans. When the captains of several English trading vessels were killed by Indians in the region, Massachusetts-Bay seized upon the murders as a pretext for launching an attack on the Pequots. In many ways, the Pequot War of 1637 was the Puritans’ Wessagussett: a terrifyingly brutal assault that redefined the balance of power in the region for decades to come.
Much as Massasoit had done more than a decade before, a local sachem used the conflict between the Indians and English as an opportunity to advance his own tribe. Prior to the Pequot War, Uncas, sachem of the Mohegans, was a minor player in the region, but after pledging his loyalty to the Puritans, he and his people were on their way to overtaking the Pequots as the most powerful tribe in Connecticut.
The Narragansetts, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic in their support of the English. The Pequots were their traditional enemies, but they were reluctant to join forces with Uncas and the Mohegans. Only after Roger Williams, the new founder of Providence, had personally interceded on Massachusetts-Bay’s behalf did Narragansett sachem Miantonomi agree to assist the Puritans in a strike against the Pequots.
Led by several veterans of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, the Puritans fell upon a Pequot fortress on the Mystic River. After setting the Indians’ wigwams ablaze, the soldiers proceeded to shoot and hack to pieces anyone who attempted to escape the inferno. By the end of the day, approximately four hundred Pequot men, women, and children were dead. “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same,” Bradford wrote, “and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God.”
Bradford saw the devastation as the work of the Lord. The Narragansetts, however, saw nothing divine in the slaughter. As Roger Williams observed, Native American warfare was more about the bravery and honor of the combatants than the body count, and usually only a handful of warriors were killed in battle. Prior to the attack on the Pequot fort in Mystic, sachem Miantonomi had attempted to get assurances from Williams that no women and children would be killed. Unfortunately, Williams, who had been cast out of Massachusetts-Bay just two years before, had been unable to extract any concessions from the Puritans. As the flames devoured every living thing in the fortified village, the Narragansetts angrily protested the slaughter, claiming “it is too furious, and slays too many men.” With the Pequot War, New England was introduced to the horrors of European-style genocide.
Before the massacre, the Pequots had urged the Narragansetts to join them against the Puritans, claiming that the English would soon “over-spread their country” and force them off their own lands. In the years ahead, sachem Miantonomi came to realize that the Pequots had been right. By the late 1630s, when he saw that there were more Puritans in Massachusetts-Bay than Native Americans in all of New England, he decided to eliminate the English threat before the Narragansetts suffered the same fate as the Pequots.
In 1642, he traveled to the Montauks on Long Island in hopes of persuading them to join the Narragansetts against the English. To accomplish this, he proposed a truly visionary strategy of pan-Indian cooperation. By laying aside their ancient differences, which the English had exploited so effectively during the Pequot War, the Indians might retake New England. Miantonomi’s speech to the Montauks included an insightful account of the ecological endgame that had come to New England: “You know our fathers had plenty of deer and skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, and of turkeys, and our coves full of fish and fowl. But these English having gotten our land, they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved.” Miantonomi knew from experience that to pick a fight with the Puritans was to fight to the death. He proposed that they employ guerrilla tactics to “kill men, women, and children, but no cows,” since the Indians would need the English livestock for food until the deer had increased to precontact levels.
In the end, Miantonomi was unable to follow his own advice. Instead of attacking the English, he attacked Uncas and the Mohegans. Like Massasoit before him, Uncas had parlayed his allegiance to the English into a sudden and, from the Narragansetts’ perspective, most annoying increase in power and influence. Uncas also did his best to undermine rival tribes, and the rumors he spread of Narragansett intrigue did much to worsen the tribe’s relations with the English.
By 1643, Miantonomi had had enough of the Mohegans and their upstart sachem. After an assassination plot against Uncas failed, Miantonomi and a thousand of his warriors launched an assault on the Mohegans. Prior to the attack, Miantonomi donned a protective iron corselet. But instead of saving his life, the English armor proved his death sentence. When the fighting turned against the Narragansetts and the sachem was forced to flee, he staggered under the weight of the metal breastplate and was easily taken by the enemy. Uncas might have executed Miantonomi on the spot. But the crafty sachem, who was destined to outlive all of the Native leaders of his generation, recognized an opportunity to ingratiate himself even further with the English.
By 1643, it had become apparent to several prominent New Englanders that Indian-English relations throughout the region needed to be managed in a more coordinated manner. With the rise of Native leaders such as Miantonomi and especially Uncas, who had learned to exploit the needs and fears of both the English and the Indians with Machiavellian sophistication, it was important that the English colonies attempt to act as a unified body. Since the boundaries of the colonies had been in dispute from the beginning, cooperation did not necessarily come naturally to the English. But in 1643, with the troubles between the Mohegans and Narragansetts threatening to spread across the region, the United Colonies of New England came into being. The union included Plymouth, Massachusetts-Bay, Connecticut, and New Haven, which would later be absorbed by Connecticut. Each colony sent its own delegation of commissioners to act on its behalf, but only with approval of the individual colonies’ General Courts. Noticeably missing from the confederation was Roger Williams’s Rhode Island—the only non-Puritan colony in New England.
Edward Winslow appears to have had an important role in creating the United Colonies, a combination for which it is difficult to find an English precedent. In Holland, however, there had been a similar confederation of independent states since 1579, and the Pilgrims may have introduced the concept to their Puritan counterparts from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven. According to John Quincy Adams, the United Colonies of 1643 was “the model and prototype of the North American Confederacy of 1774,” which, in turn, became the basis of the United States. More than a hundred years before the colonies’ growing tensions with England provided the impetus to create a confederation, the United Colonies of New England demonstrated the importance of looking beyond local concerns and prejudices. If Miantonomi had succeeded in accomplishing the same kind of combination for the Native Americans of the region, the history of New England might have been very different.
Miantonomi was still in Uncas’s custody when the commissioners of the United Colonies met for the first time in Hartford, Connecticut, on September 7, 1643, and Uncas asked the commissioners what he should do with the Narragansett sachem. By appealing to what was for all intents and purposes the Puritan Nation of New England, Uncas had given the Mohegans truly regionwide exposure and influence. After extensive deliberations, the commissioners decided to let Uncas do what he wanted with Miantonomi.
There is evidence that the Narragansett sachem attempted one last bid to unite the Native peoples of New England by proposing that he marry one of Uncas’s sisters. It was, however, too late for a reconciliation, and on the path between Hartford and Windsor, Connecticut, Uncas’s brother walked up behind Miantonomi and “clave his head with a hatchet.” For the time being, the threat of a united Native assault against Puritan and Pilgrim New England had been laid to rest.