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Native Intelligence

The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school. But that wasn't enough to save them


His reaction was common. Time and time again Europeans described the People of the First Light as strikingly healthy specimens. Eating a nutritious diet, working hard but not broken by toil, the people of New England were taller and more robust than those who wanted to move in. Native New Englanders, in William Wood’s view, were “more amiable to behold (though [dressed] only in Adam’s finery) than many a compounded fantastic [English dandy] in the newest fashion.”


Evidence suggests that Indians tended to view Europeans with disdain. The Huron in Ontario, a chagrined missionary reported, thought the French possessed “little intelligence in comparison to themselves.” Europeans, Indians told other Indians, were physically weak, sexually untrustworthy, atrociously ugly and just plain smelly. (The British and French, many of whom had not taken a bath in their entire lives, were amazed by the Indian interest in personal hygiene.) A Jesuit reported that the “savages” were disgusted by handkerchiefs: “They say, we place what is unclean in a fine white piece of linen, and put it away in our pockets as something very precious, while they throw it upon the ground.”


For 15 days Verrazzano and his crew were the Narragansett’s honored guests—though the Indians, Verrazzano admitted, kept their women out of sight after hearing the sailors’ “irksome clamor” when females came into view. Much of the time was spent in friendly barter. To the Europeans’ confusion, their steel and cloth did not interest the Narragansett, who wanted to swap only for “little bells, blue crystals, and other trinkets to put in the ear or around the neck.” On Verrazzano’s next stop, the Maine coast, the Abenaki did want steel and cloth—demanded them, in fact. But up north the friendly welcome had vanished. The Indians denied the visitors permission to land; refusing even to touch the Europeans, they passed goods back and forth on a rope over the water. As soon as the crew members sent over the last items, the locals began “showing their buttocks and laughing.” Mooned by the Indians! Verrazzano was baffled by this “barbarous” behavior, but the reason for it seems clear: unlike the Narragansett, the Abenaki had long experience with Europeans.


A Small Ship

During the century after Verrazzano, Europeans were regular visitors to the Dawnland, usually fishing, sometimes trading, occasionally kidnapping Natives as souvenirs. (Verrazzano had grabbed one himself, a boy of about 8.) By 1610, one historian has estimated, Britain alone had about 200 vessels operating off Newfoundland and New England; hundreds more came from France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. With striking uniformity, these travelers reported that New England was thickly settled and well defended. In 1605 and 1606 Samuel de Champlain visited Cape Cod, hoping to establish a French base. He abandoned the idea. Too many people already lived there. A year later the British nobleman Ferdinando Gorges tried to found a community in Maine. It began with more people than the Pilgrims’ later venture in Plymouth and was better organized and supplied. Nonetheless, the local Indians, numerous and well armed, killed 11 colonists and drove the rest back home within months.

Tisquantum probably saw Champlain and other European visitors, but the first time Europeans are known to have affected his life was in the summer of 1614. A small ship hove to, sails a-flap. Out to meet the crew went the Patuxet. Almost certainly the sachem would have been of the party; he would have been accompanied by his pniese, including Tisquantum. The strangers’ leader was a sight beyond belief: a stocky man, even shorter than most foreigners, with a voluminous red beard that covered so much of his face that he looked to Indian eyes more beast than human. This was Capt. John Smith of Pocahontas fame. According to Smith, he had lived an adventurous and glamorous life. As a youth, he claimed, he had served as a privateer, after which he was captured and enslaved by the Turks. He escaped and awarded himself the rank of captain in the army of Smith. Later he actually became captain of a ship and traveled to North America several times. On this occasion he had sailed to Maine with two ships, intending to hunt whales. The party spent two months chasing the beasts but failed to catch a single one. The fallback plan, Smith wrote later, was “Fish and Furs.” He assigned most of the crew to catch and dry fish in one ship while he sailed up and down the coast with the other, bartering for furs.


Despite Smith’s peculiar appearance, Tisquantum and his fellows apparently gave him a tour, during which he admired the gardens, orchards and maize fields, and the “great troupes of well-proportioned people” tending them. At some point a quarrel occurred and bows were drawn, Smith said, “fortie or fiftie” Patuxet surrounding him. His account is vague, but it seems likely that the Indians were hinting at a limit to his stay. In any case, the visit ended cordially enough, and Smith returned to Maine and then England. He had a map drawn of what he had seen, persuaded Prince Charles to look at it, and curried favor with him by asking him to award British names to all the Indian settlements. Then he put the maps in the books he wrote extolling his adventures. In this way Patuxet acquired its English name, Plymouth, and the region became known as New England.

Smith left his lieutenant, Thomas Hunt, behind in Maine to finish loading the other ship with dried fish. Without consulting Smith, Hunt decided to visit Patuxet, and, once there, he invited some Indians to come aboard. The thought of a summer day on the foreigners’ vessel must have been tempting. Several dozen villagers, Tisquantum among them, canoed to the ship. Without warning or pretext the sailors tried to shove them into the hold. The Indians fought back. Hunt’s men swept the deck with small-arms fire, creating “a great slaughter.” At gunpoint, Hunt forced 19 survivors, including Tisquantum, belowdecks, then sailed with them to Europe, stopping only once, at Cape Cod, where he kidnapped seven Nauset.


In Hunt’s wake, the outraged sachems of the Wampanoag and Nauset confederacies vowed not to let foreigners rest on their shores again. Because of the “worthlesse” Hunt, lamented Gorges, the would-be colonizer of Maine, “a warre [was] now new begunne between the inhabitants of those parts, and us.” Despite European guns, the Indians’ greater numbers, entrenched positions, knowledge of the terrain and superb archery made them formidable adversaries. About two years after Hunt’s offenses, a French ship wrecked at the tip of Cape Cod. Its crew built a rude shelter with a defensive wall made from poles. The Nauset, hidden outside, picked off the sailors one by one until only five were left. They captured the five and sent them to groups victimized by European kidnappers. Another French vessel anchored in Boston Harbor at about the same time. The Massachusett killed everyone aboard and set the ship afire.


“God’s Good Providence”

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