Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tears in the Quill


A Decorated Mortar in Columbia Valley Art Style

Melvoin, Richard I. New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1989.

Lepore, Jill. Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

In New England Outpost, Melvoin demonstrates three themes that surround the story of Deerfield, Massachusetts. These themes tend to meld Native American history into that of the European’s. “The Indians become active agents in history, not simply pawns or objects in the study of the past” (Melvoin, 1989, 11). First, war was a fundamental aspect of life in colonial America. Melvoin explores war and its effects on the microcosm of the individual community. Second, what was the long-term effect of war like on a small frontier town and its development? Third, a study of the Indians before, during, and after the war is an essential complement to the history of the European settlement of Deerfield. The most unique aspect of Melvoin’s book is that it explores a well-told story from a part of the battleground that is rarely heard from. From this perspective the story can be told afresh, with a new theme and plot, necessary to truly understand the Native American contribution to the story, the side of the frontier.

Jill Lepore, in The Name of War approaches American identity through various perceptions of war as they were written. For Lepore, “War is perhaps best understood as a violent contest for territory, resources, and political allegiances, and no less fiercely, a contest for meaning” (Lepore, 1999, x). Her exploration for meaning delves deeply into psychology and individual perceptions of the players involved. Motivations, education, desires, horrors, events, and reactions all become vital considerations for Lepore in her remarkable study. King Philip’s War became the most devastating war known to Americans and how it was expressed in more than four hundred personal accounts photographs the human mind at the focal point of the despair. Just as important as the personal accounts of the war were how colonists defended their actions in that war. So, for Lepore, the narratives tell a great deal more than just a dry account of events. America’s view of the Indian was forever hardened by their seventeenth-century experience. Whether for history or psychology, this book is essential material, a unique first in historical exploration.

Unavoidable and incomprehensible destruction and death typifies both books. Melvoin’s exploration of relationships between the destruction of both Pocumtuck and of Deerfield relate to the thoughtful comparison of English “savagery” with the “savage” Mohegan torture of a Narragansett captive. The two states of mind were shocking, misunderstood, and ill-defined at the time they occurred. Clearly, both authors encourage an understanding of events from the opposite perspective. The roles change back and forth, interchangeably blurring into each other. The result becomes a human story, the tragic mortar that built a country. Indians and Europeans alike felt the sharp birth pangs of America. Certainly, for its earliest residents, seeking solace in their writing, their quills were filled with the tears of both.

Complexity defines both authors’ efforts. Taoistic imagery was employed by the original writers of these events, extremes that helped them to arrive at an understanding of the tragedy before them. Truth lies in the middle, in the synthesis. Again, for both book authors, names transfer the meanings and preserve the feelings. From these names, these symbols evolve an unconventional historical source, almost an “oral history” archive that can reflect the motivations of the colonist’s opponents. Where “Muddy Brook” becomes “Bloody Brook,” a miry swamp, horrifying to a colonist, can be considered an Indian’s “castle.” Individual words and disconnected phrases become source material. Truth must be derived from the sources left by only one side of the equation for most Indians did not write. Still, a scant few did, colored by their white teacher’s impressions as they were. Verbal walls were built so hastily that they reveal the hidden passages through them. Lepore’s most incisive accomplishment has to be that the war's brutality caused the colonists to defend themselves against accusations, both internal and external, that they had become savages, a horrifying idea for a people motivated by God and morality. Puritans knew Aquinas’ argument that a savage inflicts pain for pleasure. Might they be guilty of this? Did not Englishmen burn numerous Indians in a manner inconsistent with the benevolent principles of the gospel? These were hard questions – a hard reality. As Melvoin indicates in his “tapestry” analogy, seventeenth-century atypical becomes America’s modern typical. As Lepore argues, Americans discovered themselves, identity evolved. At that moment, the “English” rubbed off.

Melvoin utilizes a symbolic device of impartiality to view Deerfield’s unique history. A buttonball tree in the center of the village has been alive for more than four hundred years and has witnessed the many events that led from Pocumtuck to Deerfield, Indian to European, red to white. The tree, like memory, endures. It saw the clash between Indians that destroyed the Pocumtucks, Indians that destroyed the colonists, and the clash between Europeans, assisted by Indians that destroyed Deerfield. The buttonball tree stands eternal and remains an impartial witness. Lepore’s device is literature, just as enduring. Like the tree, it stands eternal and, yet rarely impartial on the surface. Yet, through its partiality can be viewed the same perspective in time.

Melvoin and Lepore demonstrate a transition of thought from coexistence to self-preservation, that relationships between Indians and colonists began courteously, if flimsily. Intertribal warfare between the Pocumtucks, Mohawks, and Sokokis did not adversely affect the colonists, who often functioned as intermediaries at peace talks. Still, the ancient animosities between the tribes prevailed, occasionally pulling in the colonists. The most devastating effect to Indians involved whites against whites, Dutch versus French, French versus English, and English versus Dutch. These external international disputes, completely analogous to intertribal disputes, often pulled in the Indians. The English settlers simply became another tribe amongst tribes, with the Iroquois worried about their French neighbors and their conflicts with other Europeans. The Dutch contrived against the English, strengthening their alliance to Mohawks. Everyone seemed equal.

The Puritans failed to consider certain Indian rights before laying claim to their lands. They also did not concern themselves with who had the authority to sell those lands. Melvoin declares that they made bargains with people not capable of comprehending the consequences of those bargains and they imposed their system of beliefs and standards on these people. Arguably, the Puritans were not unique in this approach to Indian-Colonist relations. This would have far-reaching consequences for early Deerfield and Massachusetts as it would have for all American colonies. Whereas most historians would avoid a definitive assessment that conflict between Europeans and Indians was unavoidable, statistically speaking, it was nearly so. Modern anthropological thought states that a food-foraging, partially agricultural egalitarian society such as Native Americans were not uncommon in the world. Indeed, European society had also been in this state at one time and probably would have fought fervently for their dominance over a more primitive society, as they saw it. Statistically speaking, the conflict was inevitable.

Melvoin implies that it took only fifty years before Pocumtuck speculation and economic gain began to override the Puritan utopia. The “city upon a hill” had become just a “village in the valley” (Melvoin, 1989, 67). Even though Pocumtuck had broken free of Dedham proprietorship and grew quickly after 1671, they grew apart from their Puritan traditions in their backwoods home. Most Puritans screened their newcomers but Pocumtuck, as a new town, was settled quickly and did not achieve such precautions. Furthermore, Pocumtuck had no communal covenant to bind the town ecclesiastically. Absentee owners like John Pynchon and Henry Woodward Jr. speculated heavily in the town and while the intent may originally have been to help it grow, the possibilities were ominous for corrupt practices. John and Mary Farrington became the only original Dedham proprietors to settle at Pocumtuck. Another unusual characteristic of this Puritan town was the youthful marriages of the general populace. Pocumtuck, as a frontier Massachusetts town differentiated sharply from their Puritan brethren.

Many of Pocumtuck’s settlers also came from other Massachusetts towns as refugees from religious disputes or dissenting reforms. Many of them were outlaws, as well. Settlers from towns like Hadley, Hatfield, and Northampton included thieves, possible rapists, and adulterers. The Massachusetts frontier town was different from the typical American frontier town in that Pocumtuck exhibited all of the usual frontier aspects except the disorder and disorganization that typified the American western style. Even though Pocumtuck stood apart from other Puritan towns, they perceived little to fear from the neighboring Indians which made the events of 1675 even more horrifying and unsuspected. Northern Carolina’s Tuscarora conflict of 1711-1713 was a close comparison to the suddenness of King Philip’s War on Massachusetts, but especially on the isolated Pocumtuck. The element of surprise worked in the Indians’ favor and the effects were that much more shocking. It was this particular aspect of the war that brings Melvoin’s discussion of future Deerfield into perspective with Lepore’s psychological treatise on the affects of the unleashing of Hell upon the highly religious Puritans. It was the suddenness of the loss that forced explanation in the numerous writings, captivity accounts, records of great loss, and laments.

There was a growing social differentiation that may have frightened many hard-line purists, men like Increase Mather, Josiah Winslow, and Nathaniel Saltonstall. Lepore argues that Puritans never tried to understand Indians, never knew that they lived in towns like Europeans, and believed that they could only find common ground with fellow Christians. The attempt to Christianize the Indians resulted in drastic consequences. Indians made attacks upon Christians in retaliation against their faith. They verbally abused the colonists, taunting them with their own religious phraseology as they burned their homes, exposing Christians to their own doubts. The fire was biblical. King Philips War became a holy war. It was a symbolic and verbal reaffirmation of the truth of their native religion and a forceful revulsion of Christianity. Colonists saw it as an affirmation of their worst fears, the fear of losing their civilization, becoming savage themselves.

The colonists could not make this “savage” world in the shape of their creator. They could not build their great Christian “City Upon a Hill.” They were also exposed as unworthy of such a gift as well. They were truly alone now and the guilt they felt manifested in denial and vicious response. Colonists committed atrocities of which they never believed themselves capable. The burning of an entire Indian population, women and children included in the Great Swamp Massacre typified the fright with which they responded. “Oh, what an Indian calamity was this,” wrote the Reverend Noah Newman (Lepore, 1999, 89). These acts against the Narragansett were not consistent with religious principles. Benjamin Tompson wrote “Had we been cannibals, here we might feast” (Lepore, 1999, 89). Turner’s Falls the next year reflected English savagery in the enemy’s heads upon pikes, torn body parts, and taking of scalps. One Indian woman was even ordered to be torn apart by dogs. Like Lepore, Melvoin makes it clear that these acts were at least as savage as those of the Indians. They were exceptional in the baseness and cruelty. These Indians were family and friends who suddenly turned against the colonists. Religion was used against them, to taunt them. “Where is your, Oh God?” and “Come and pray, & sing Psalms,” the Nipmucks had spat at the citizens of Brookfield (Lepore, 1999, 104-5). The message was clear. “God” was not welcome any longer. “Creator” was supreme.

As the Mohawk tide turned against King Philip and the whites once again felt the hand of the Lord on their side, they threw revulsion back upon their tormentors. Indians had been rounded up and sold into slavery, former friends, treated with kindness, now vile creatures with no human value. Many of the Puritans understood this and the change that had taken place, yet few recognized their fear, guilt, and culpability. Hell on earth came to Massachusetts. That was the only certainty and they desperately sought to justify their actions and redeem themselves. The colonists lashed out at any and all, even other whites like Governor Edmund Andros of New York. Lepore’s in-depth psychological and methodical analysis exposes humanity of action, both good and bad. Moreover, like a mirror she exposes the colonists’ own savagery to their disbelieving eyes. Melvoin takes his time in explaining the specific affects on Pocumtuck. Once 1675 arrived, his transition to the horror of the attacks seems as sudden as the attacks actually were.

Jill Lepore stresses that this newfound revulsion of the Indian set a trend for America itself. Savagery preserved itself in the foundations of this country. She illustrates this with the disconnected normalcy with which men of faith regarded anything Indian after 1675. “Increase Mather would later relish the image of Philip being ‘hewed in pieces before the Lord’” (Lepore, 1999, 173). Philip’s rotting head remained on a pole for all to see long after the war, some bits of dried flesh tenaciously holding the pieces together after all those years. A twelve-year-old Cotton Mather, on a pilgrimage to Plymouth, irreverently separated the lower jaw from Philip’s skull to silence the blasphemous words of Philip while his father symbolically silenced other “incorrect” versions of the war with his writing. Writing was the salve for the wounds. To make sense from their devastation, their barbarism, writing normalized the tragedy in their minds. Nathaniel Saltonstall’s “True but Brief Account of our Losses,” William Hubbard’s “Narrative,” or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative joined hundreds of attempts to understand and justify. Most significant, writing helped to harden white feeling against the Indians. It was denial.

Melvoin shows us that seventeenth-century Massachusetts was a swirl of political agendas and competing faction. Still, this reflected similar trends over the culturally-contaminating expanse of European settlement in the New World. Like Lepore, Melvoin implies a cultural evolution that resulted in modern America. The current values, impressions of Native Americans, and impressions of our world itself are cultivated in past perceptions of this conflict and in wonder at past events. Efforts to explain the strange carvings on the Mount Hope Rock in Rhode Island enlighten this tale. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was known as “Lief’s Rock,” a reference to a Viking origin. Edmund Delabarre, a psychology professor tried to disprove this hypothesis by pointing out that the inscription had not been described before about 1835 and declared it to be written in the Cherokee syllabary, which then he translated as “Metacom, Great Sachem.” Still, it must have been written by an amateur if it was. No one can really be sure of its origins, but a great deal of effort has been expended on its explanation.

Melvoin goes beyond King Philip’s war to tell how Pocumtuck, now “Deerfield,” rebuilt after the war. They epitomized once again, even more fervently than before, the frontier of the American wilderness, the drive toward democracy and the belief in a single people, regardless of breeding and status. “Selectmen” were not as select as before, land was available evenly to all, and few of the former Dedham proprietors had anything to do with the town. Deerfield became a closed, interdependent community. Deerfielders focused upon land and work. Still, the Connecticut valley was not all pastoral pleasantries. There was a building sense of religious foundering, a loss of mission that was not completely unrelated to the willingness of the town to accept all refugees.

King William’s War or the War of the League of Augsburg pitted France against the English and had its counterparts in New France and New England. The colonies in America were expected to fight without much help from home. The Indians once again became allies to the Europeans and, once again they found intertribal animosities mingling with European difficulties. What resulted was a “Covenant chain” between the Iroquois and the English against the French and Mohawks, Abenaki, and a mixture of refugees from King Philip’s War. War had come full circle and whereas New England experienced a decade of peace, it would be all they would get. Threats to Deerfield once again came from the north in 1688. At least this time, they had time to prepare. The town militia, the consistent training, and the maintenance of war materiel would benefit Deerfield, the New England “spearhead” of valley defense. Sporadic attacks over the years landed all around the town until 1693. Captain George Colton and his men prevented disaster. The Treaty of Ryswick in 1698 gave nothing for a decade of constant stress, establishing no gained territories for either side.

Deerfield found no respite from the troubles. Sarah Smith’s travails and eventual infanticide refocused the town’s attention from war. Still, Queen Anne’s War followed upon its heels while the English and French each vied for control of Indian powers in America. While numerous English colonies awaited attack and Governors Winthrop, Dudley, and Cornbury strategized all of New England against French maneuvers, Deerfield, once again became the focus of attack. It suffered mostly a financial devastation and lost the ability to defend itself.

The French threat remained persistent. The horrors of the past would come again in 1704. Only, this time a multicultural enemy, a treacherous yet “normal” enemy came in the mix. Still, the heavy snow drifts piled against the palisades of Deerfield held a deceptively protective quality. Again, narratives tell the story of the failed watch. Like Lepore’s narratives of King Philip’s War, these varying tales make little sense of his failure. The attack came suddenly and unexpectedly, not unlike attacks they had before. Again, the horrors were visited upon Deerfield. Sieur Hertel de Rouville and his Indian allies took the town by surprise and marched their captives back to Quebec, killing those that could not make the journey. The Reverend John Williams, amazed himself, made the journey. His narrative of The Redeemed Captive told of how remarkable the French found their resistance to French Catholicism. Such was the strength of their faith.

Still, Deerfield survived this blow. Unlike the previous destructions, it maintained itself through the 1704 attack. Truly, Massachusetts needed Deerfield on the frontier. Stories of the Indian captives at Deerfield galvanized resistance and preservation. Again, tales told of war were the most meaningful events of the war. The image of Mary Brooks lying in the snow next to her newborn child, killed on the northward journey, remain the most poignant. A “trail of tears” narrative would be told for the white slaves of Mohawks. Interestingly, 88 of 109 white captives survived this bitterly cold snowbound “trail,” a starkly different comparison of the 1835 journey of the Cherokee.

Melvoin takes the reader through the Indian village of Pocumtuck, the European town of Pocumtuck, the European town of Deerfield, and Deerfield, phase II. He gives an excellent description of the genesis of four separate towns, from inception, settlement, destruction, and resettlement. Surprisingly, all of them were built on the same spot. It is a story of town building and rebuilding, but certainly, disaster as well. King Philip’s War, undoubtedly, scarred people the most. Indians and Europeans alike felt the devastation of the bloodiest war in American history. Unlike Frederick Jackson Turner who saw the Massachusetts frontier as a “hedge” against the evil beyond, it was rather a point of exchange with the “other side.” Even after 1675, Indians were often welcome in Deerfield until they faded from existence by the end of the century. Melvoin’s work is a monument to the frontier fluidity of Deerfield, Massachusetts while Jill Lepore’s book is a psychological study of war and its effects on the human psyche.

Lepore was much more successful at viewing history through a different lens. The destruction, horror, guilt, and savagery of King Philip’s War are laid out and examined in detail from both sides of the dispute. She examines primary sources in a way that few ever have, as though she were the first to read them. Melvoin’s excellent efforts should not be slighted. Lepore’s work was simply that different, the first book of its kind, a new genre of historical exploration destined to be a precedent for others.

Native American and European relations suffered immeasurably, never again to be partners in the wilderness. Both books explore different attributes of Indian-European American culture, but in very different ways. King Philip’s War affected for centuries the country that became the United States. The aftereffects are still with us today. Business signs and advertisements, high schools, sports teams, even candy wrappers reflect the unseen ghosts of those days. Metamora, a nineteenth-century play designed to tell the story of the war, and of King Philip (Metacom), salved the wounds of a people whose guilt patterned their futures. Truly, America shed its tears through the pen. Only today does America begin to understand what King Philip’s War really meant to America. Human beings really only know history by what they read. Still, Lepore’s words come as close as any to bringing history to life.

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