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This Day in Resistance History: Colonists vs Indians 2.0

November 23, 2011

On November 24, 1656, the colony of Maidstone on Long Island passed some laws concerning the Algonquian Lenape, the natives of the area. No one, the General Council ruled, would be able to rent land to an Indian. Any Indian camping within the outskirts of the village of Maidstone would be charged with a crime. The law went on:

It is alsoe ordered that noe Indian shall travel up and downe or carrie any burdens in or through our Towne on the Sabbath Day. Whoever is found so doing, shall be liable to corporall punishment.

Any person who believed in the Thanksgiving story—an image of neighborly hospitality and harmony, of the generous Puritans inviting their Indian neighbors to a feast of turkey, venison, corn, and other delicacies—might think, “Wow. Things really went downhill between 1621 and 1656.”

That person would be wrong. In point of fact, the Maidstone ordinances were business as usual in 17th Century New England.

As we’ve written in the past, our largely fictitious Thanksgiving story actually runs along both racist and imperialist lines. In this legend, the Pilgrims plan the feast and the Indians are the guests. The Indians are honored to attend and bring their revered leader King Massasoit. The food is provided by the Pilgrims. In actuality, the Wampanoag contingent was a war party. They were responding to the Puritans firing off guns and stealing seed corn from a nearby Indian village. It was the Indians who brought the venison, the turkeys, the other wild fowl, and most of the other food served at the celebration. And of course, they also provided the stewed corn that had been stolen from them. They somehow managed to sit calmly while watching their crops for the next year being devoured by a group of White people who had become the bane of their existence.

When the first English settlers arrived at Plymouth, they assumed that the land belonged to them, and treated the Indians as encroachers on their infant colony. This attitude of White supremacy can be found in even the earliest of dealings with the Wampanoag. In 1621, for example, the Plymouth colonists drew up a treaty that nine sachems in the immediate area were required to sign, pledging their loyalty to King James. To the colonists, this meant that the Indians were subjects of the king; to the Indians, it meant that they would not wage war against King James’s representatives.

Only two years later, Miles Standish led a party to Wessagussett, asking to parlay with the sachem Obtakiest. Under the pretense of friendship, Standish and his men turned on the Indians, killing several warriors and attempting to murder or capture the sachem.

All of the area tribes then dismantled their camps, disappeared into the forests, and refused to trade furs with the Plymouth colonists. William Bradford wrote, apparently puzzled, “We had much damaged our trade, for there where we had the most skins, the Indians are run away from their habitations.” As for the Indians, they gave a new name to the Pilgrims: Wotawquenange, or “the cutthroats.”

The dealings of the Dutch with the Indians did not go much better. Under Dutch law, settlers were obliged to buy land from the local Indians, not just seize what they wanted. But even these transactions were misunderstood by the invading colonists. The Dutch were under the impression they were buying land with beads and blankets—land that they then would have complete control over.

But the Indians viewed the trade goods as gifts of goodwill. They believed that the settlers were asking their permission to share the land, which they freely did. When the Indians continued to hunt and camp on land that the Dutch had “bought,” the Dutch tried more aggressive methods instead.

In 1643, as just one example, the then-governor of New Amsterdam, Willem Kieft, attempted to get the Indian “problem” under control by ordering a band of Lenape in the outlying areas of Manhattan off the island. At the time, the Lenape were sheltering on Manhattan after losing a battle with the Mohican and the Mohawk. They refused to return to the mainland, where the enemy’s allied forces were waiting for them.

Enraged, Kieft had 120 of the band killed, including many of the warriors. The Lenape retaliated, forcing the Dutch to flee their farms to their fort at New Amsterdam. One-third of the Indian warriors were killed during the battle. This spurred two years’ worth of raids by the Lenape, and Kieft lost his job.

Petrus (known in our history as Peter) Stuyvesant was sent by the Dutch to replace Kieft. He famously “bought” the entire island of Manhattan from the Indians for what has been described as $24 of trade goods (the actual value was closer to $1,000, still a stunning bargain). But he remained as puzzled as earlier colonists that his purchase did not allow him exclusivity over all of the land he had specified in his purchase.

And so the Dutch and English colonists turned to their courts, creating laws that the Indians found inexplicable—especially since they did not understand the concept of ownership over land to begin with.

The type of laws issued in Maidstone showed the true attitude of the colonists—that they were within their rights to take what they decided was theirs and to mete out punishments to those who attempted originally to share their lands in friendship. They had no vision of themselves as robbers or invaders, no understanding of how their actions might appear to the Indians who had welcomed them as guests in their homeland.

By the 1670s, any pretense of sociability, of shared meals and shared trust, was no longer showing up in colonial reports. King Philip’s War, fought in 1675 and 1676, was the Indians’ long-restrained response to decades of humiliating treatment. The Indian warriors killed 600 of the fighting colonists. Half of the 180 settlements in New England were damaged or destroyed. Their economic losses exceeded the actual value of their property. But the Indians fared much worse.

Already weakened by European diseases that had wiped out whole bands and tribes, the Indians suffered huge human losses in the war. Three thousand allied Indian warriors were killed during King Philip’s War. Many of King Philip’s surviving warriors were sold as slaves to other tribes. Eventually, the remaining Indians were driven from most of their settlements in New England.

Imperialism on the part of settlers ran unchecked through the late 1800s, when Indians across the United States were slaughtered and survivors imprisoned on reservations. Turns out the punitive law passed on Long Island 355 years ago today is a better snapshot of our early attitude toward the natives of North America than any feast of turkey and stolen seed corn can possibly represent.




One Comment leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011 5:43 pm

    Thanksgiving Thought: U.S. border issues date back centuries to lack of comprehensive immigration policy on the part of the Native Americans.

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