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

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The primary goal of Dawnland education was molding character. Men and women were expected to be brave, hardy, honest and uncomplaining. Chatterboxes and gossips were frowned upon. “He that speaks seldom and opportunely, being as good as his word, is the only man they love,” Wood reported. When Indian boys came of age, they spent an entire winter alone in the forest, equipped only with a bow, hatchet and knife. These methods worked, Wood added. “Beat them, whip them, pinch them, punch them, if [the Indians] resolve not to flinch for it, they will not.”

Tisquantum’s regimen was probably even more rigorous than that of his friends, according to Smith College’s Salisbury, for it seems that he was selected to become a pniese, a kind of counselor-bodyguard to the sachem. To master the art of ignoring pain, prospective pniese had to subject themselves to such experiences as running barelegged through brambles. And they fasted often, to learn self-discipline. After spending their winter in the woods, pniese candidates came back to an additional test: drinking bitter gentian juice until they vomited, repeating this process over and over.

Patuxet, like its neighboring settlements, was governed by a sachem who enforced laws, negotiated treaties, controlled foreign contacts, collected tribute, declared war, provided for widows and orphans, and allocated farmland. The Patuxet sachem owed fealty to the great sachem in the Wampanoag village to the southwest, and through him to the sachems of the allied confederations of the Nauset in Cape Cod and the Massachusett around Boston. Meanwhile, the Wampanoag were rivals and enemies of the Narragansett and Pequots to the west and the Abenaki to the north.

Sixteenth-century New England was home to 100,000 Native people or more, a figure that was slowly increasing. Most of them lived in shoreline communities, where rising numbers were beginning to change agriculture from an option to a necessity. These larger settlements required more centralized administration; natural resources like good land and spawning streams, though not scarce, needed to be managed. In consequence, boundaries between groups were becoming more formal. Sachems, given more power and more to defend, pushed against each other harder. Political tensions were constant. Coastal and riverine New England, according to the archaeologist and ethnohistorian Peter Thomas, was “an ever-changing collage of personalities, alliances, plots, raids and encounters which involved every Indian [settlement].”

Armed conflict was frequent but brief and mild by European standards. The catalyst was usually the desire to avenge an insult or gain status, not conquest. Most battles consisted of lightning guerrilla raids in the forest. Attackers slipped away as soon as retribution had been exacted. Losers quickly conceded their loss of status. Women and children were rarely killed, though they were sometimes abducted and forced to join the victors. Captured men were often tortured. Now and then, as a sign of victory, slain foes were scalped, and in especially large clashes, adversaries might meet in the open, as in European battlefields, though the results, Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island Colony, noted, were “farre less bloudy, and devouring then the cruell Warres of Europe.”

Inside the settlement was a world of warmth, family and familiar custom. But the world outside, as Thomas put it, was “a maze of confusing actions and individuals fighting to maintain an existence in the shadow of change.”

And that was before the Europeans showed up.

“Beautiful of Stature and Build”

British fishing vessels may have reached Newfoundland as early as the 1480s and areas to the south soon after. In 1501, just nine years after Columbus’ first voyage, the Portuguese adventurer Gaspar Corte-Real abducted more than 50 Indians from Maine. Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings.

The earliest written description of the People of the First Light was by Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Italian mariner-for-hire commissioned by the king of France in 1523 to discover whether one could reach Asia by rounding the Americas to the north. Sailing north from the Carolinas, he observed that the coastline everywhere was “densely populated,” smoky with Indian bonfires; he could sometimes smell the burning hundreds of miles away. The ship anchored in Narragansett Bay, near what is now Providence. Verrazzano was one of the first Europeans the Natives had seen, perhaps even the first, but the Narragansett were not intimidated. Almost instantly, 20 long canoes surrounded the visitors. Cocksure and graceful, the Narragansett sachem leapt aboard: a tall, long-haired man of about 40 with multicolored jewelry dangling about his neck and ears, “as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe,” Verrazzano wrote.


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