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Apostle To The Indians
John Eliot preached to the Massachusetts savages, printed the Bible in their “barbarous Linguo,” and tried to reply to their disquieting questions
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
The outbreak, in the middle of June, was sudden, bloody, and disastrous for the colonists. From Springfield east a hundred miles to within sight of Boston the towns went up in flames, and women and children were butchered with malignant savagery. Although Waban had warned the colonists some time before, they were unprepared. Before the militia could muster any effective counterattack the western garrisons were besieged and in some cases annihilated. No small town or isolated farm was safe. Terror of the savages reinforced all the colonists’ earlier prejudices. Praying or not, an Indian was an Indian, better locked up, best dead.
Eliot’s Indians lived in danger of their lives. Sometimes they were murdered out of hand, as at Chelmsford, or, as at Marlboro, seized and marched to the Boston jail. Yet in spite of ill will, suspicion, and harsh treatment which was to grow harsher, the great majority of the Praying Indians remained loyal. There were exceptions. James the Printer, who had helped print Eliot’s Up-Biblum , abandoned his press and his hand-me-downs to put on war paint with Philip, as did Old Jethro, an Indian preacher Eliot had trained, who was later taken prisoner and hanged.
Eliot and Gookin did all they could to protect the lives and substance of their wards; but they were increasingly isolated by the hysterical clamor against the Praying Indians. Gookin’s life was threatened in the streets of Boston. When Eliot’s boat tipped over in the harbor and was nearly run down by another boat, several people said it was a pity he had not drowned.
At the autumn period of Philip’s greatest successes, the colonists packed off the Praying Indians from Natick and the other towns just before the harvest and shipped them down Boston Harbor to Deer Island. There they were left, women and children and old men indifferently, to shift for themselves on that bleak drumlin lying open to the Atlantic. Eliot went to the water front to see the miserable converts embark, his most faithful among them—his ministers, his teachers, his interpreters. Whenever he could he visited them that winter, bringing small amounts of corn, provisions, and odds and ends of clothes. Those who survived did so for the most part by grubbing for clams and shellfish, threatened even there by some of the more hotheaded colonists, who as a reprisal for burnt villages were for going to Deer Island to kill the lot.
Yet through all their wretchedness the Indians still remained firm in their affection for Eliot. And when some of the less fanatical and more practical-minded colonists decided to try to raise an Indian scouting company from among them, sixty volunteered. In the end, Indian aid to the English was substantial. The Praying Indians, resuming their forest ways, killed over 400 of the enemy, and Gookin maintained that they “turned y e balance to y e English side, so that y e enemy went down y e wind amain.”
The war lasted until the middle of the following year. Philip was finally surrounded and brought to bay in Mount Hope Swamp in Rhode Island, a Praying Indian firing the shot that finished him. The militiamen found him lying in the mud, “a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast.” They cut off his head and brought it to Plymouth, where it stood impaled for the next quarter of a century.
With the end of this threat the Praying Indians were allowed to leave Deer Island for their old homes, but only a poor minority survived. Whatever creative spark Eliot had managed to kindle in them had gone out. The end of Philip was the knell of the Massachusetts Indians. Over Eliot’s distressed protests the war captives, including Philip’s wife and young children, were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Where fourteen thriving Indian towns had existed, there were now only four listless and dwindling settlements.
The London society, however, continued its help. Most of the Indian Bibles had been burnt or destroyed during the war, and Eliot prepared a revised edition with the help of his friend John Cotton of Plymouth, who knew the language even better than he did. He still visited his remaining Indians when he could, although less frequently now that old age was on him.
John Eliot was to live another fifteen years, a patriarchal figure, revered now in the harmlessness of his broken dream, one of the last thin links with that first generation from across the ocean. His Praying Indians were no longer a problem in the expanding colony, and the bitterness was glossed over now. From Roxbury to Boston he had become such a time-accustomed figure over half a century that he seemed almost beyond time, and a saying grew up that Massachusetts could not come to an end as long as the Reverend John Eliot lived.
He himself knew that his time was almost out and how vain most of it had been. “There is a cloud,” he wrote finally, “a dark cloud upon the work of the Gospel among the poor Indians.”
He lived to see his wife Anne and four of his six children with Christ, his Cromwell with Christ, Charles with the Devil, God’s Commonwealth pilloried, and every hand against his copper-colored children. And he remembered his Up-Biblum . Cotton Mather, pursuing a fancy of which he was fond, discovered that the anagram of his name was Toile.