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“God…would Destroy Them, And Give Their Country To Another People…”
The mysterious diseases that nearly wiped out the Indians of New England were the work of the Christian God-or so both Pilgrims and Indians believed
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
What destroyed Indian bodies also undermined Indian religion—the Indian’s entire view of the universe and of himself. Disease was always considered a manifestation of spiritual influences, and the power of the powwows (medicine men) to direct and cure disease was central to the Indian religion. Later in the century we hear of powwows being hounded, punished, and even killed for failing to produce promised cures. What was the impact when hundreds, even thousands, died under the hands of leaders whose chief distinction was their ability to cure? Many of the powwows themselves, in constant contact with the sick they sought to cure, must have died. What was the impact of this final and irrevocable defeat of these priestly physicians?
What seemed cosmically appalling to the Indians was interpreted as clear proof of God’s love by the Pilgrims—a divine intercession that revealed itself from the beginning. They had planned to settle in the Hudson River area or thereabouts, but the master of the Mayflower deposited them on the coast of New England. His inability or refusal to take them where they wanted to go proved a bit of luck—“God outshoots Satan oftentimes in his own bow”—for the lands about the Hudson’s mouth, though more attractive because more fertile than Plymouth’s, were “then abounding with a multitude of pernicious savages. …” God had directed the Pilgrims to a coast His plague had cleared of such savages: “whereby he made way for the carrying of his good purpose in promulgating his gospel. …” There were no Indians at Plymouth and none for eight or ten miles, and yet it had recently been a village of Wampanoags who had, over the years, cut away the tough climax growth of forest to plant corn. When the weak and hungry Colonists went out to plant in the following spring, all they had to do was to clear out the weeds. Death, it seemed obvious, was God’s handyman and the Pilgrim’s friend.
The wind of pestilence did more than merely clear a safe place for the Pilgrim to settle; in the long run, it enabled that settlement not only to survive, but to take root and, in the end, to prosper with a minimum of native resistance. The natives of coastal Massachusetts were fewer in number than in a very long time, possibly than in several thousand years, but there were still quite enough of them to wipe out the few Europeans from the Mayflower , and they had reason to hate whites. In addition to kidnapings, Europeans—English, the Indians told Dermer—recently had lured a number of Wampanoags on board their ship and had then “made great slaughter of them with their murderers [small ship’s cannon]. …” When a party of Pilgrims visited the next tribe to the south, the Nausets, in 1621, they met an old woman who broke “forth into great passion, weeping and crying excessively.” She had lost three of her sons to kidnapers, and now was without comfort in her old age. A Wampanoag said that the Nausets had killed three English interlopers in the summer of 1620.
Half the English at Plymouth died of malnutrition, exhaustion, and exposure that first winter. Indian anger and Indian power could have made Plymouth one of the lost colonies, like the one Columbus left behind on La Espanola in 1493 or Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke colony of the 1580’s.
At some time during this low ebb of Pilgrim history the powwows gathered in the fastnesses of a swamp, where, for three days, they “did curse and execrate” the newcomers to destroy them or drive them away. It almost worked: at times the number of English healthy enough to offer any real help to the sick and, if necessary, any real resistance to attackers was as low as six or seven. But in the end the Indians’ gods failed, and the English survived, “having borne this affliction with much patience, being upheld by the Lord.”
What held the Indians back from physical attack? They had the strength and motive, and bloody precedent had been set by both whites and Indians. The answer must be fear. The coastal Indians may have been second only to the Pilgrims in New England as believers in the power of the white man’s god. A visitor to Plymouth in 1621 wrote that the plague had sapped Wampanoag courage, as well as the tribe’s numbers: “their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted.” They were coming to the English settlement in great numbers every day, “and might in one hour have made a dispatch of us, yet such a fear was upon them, as that they never offered us the least injury in word or deed.”
Direct relations between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims began in March of 1621, approximately three months after the English arrival. An Indian walked out of the woods and through the fields and into Plymouth. He was Samoset, who spoke some English, having learned it from English fishermen on the coast of Maine. He asked for beer, and received “strong water,” biscuit, butter, cheese, pudding, and a piece of duck. It was he who told the Pilgrims the old Indian name for their village and explained what had happened to its original inhabitants. A few days later he returned with the individual whom the Pilgrims would soon rank as “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” The man was Squanto, a Pawtuxet who had been kidnaped, had escaped in Spain, and had lived in Cornhill, London, before making his way back to America.