Aborigines And Slavery – New England

The Indians of New England have been so long gone as to be almost forgotten. In a few spots, at Gay Head, Mashpee, Orono, and Kingston, some descendants of mixed blood still survive.

When in 1524 Verazzano, one of the first European visitors to the New England coast, sailed into Narragansett Bay, some twenty canoes full of natives greeted him. Delighted with their reception he stayed there a fortnight, making excursions into the interior. He describes their houses of split logs, nicely thatched, the abundance of copper ornaments, and well cultivated fields.

The happy state of the aborigines pictured by Verazzano did not last. Shortly before 1600 the fierce Mohicans from the Hudson river fought their way through New England, subduing and levying tribute upon the tribes. Some of them, under the name of Pequots, finally settled in southeastern Connecticut. But the voyagers coasting these shores in the ensuing years found the shores of the bays and estuaries well peopled. Gosnold, in 1602 cruising along the coast of Cape Cod and Marthas Vineyard, has much to say of the natives, of their apparent prosperity, and gives a full and circumstantial account of their customs.

When Martin Pring in 16o3 sailed into Plymouth harbor, the natives were numerous. One hundred and twenty of them visited his men at one time. Champlain, in 1605 coasting as far south as Cape Cod Bay, tells of the natives and their well-tilled gardens where they grew corn, beans, squashes, pumpkins, and tobacco. In the following ten years Weymouth, Captain John Smith, and others left records of cruises along the New England coast. They all speak of the abundant native life. Weymouth kidnapped five Indians and carried them to England. Such practices made the Europeans unpopular with the natives. In the chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers we read of the Cape Cod Indians: “These people are ill affected towards the English by reason of one Hunt, a master of a ship, who deceived the people and got them, under color of trucking with them, twenty out of this very place where we inhabit, and seven men from the Nausites, and carried them away, and sold them for slaves, like a wretched man (for twenty pound a man) that cares not what mischief he doth for his profit.”

In 161 7 a frightful pestilence swept over New England, exterminating half the natives. This was measles or smallpox, or both, probably contracted from contact with the English. Eastern Massachusetts was depopulated so that when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, where Pring and Champlain had found a numerous population, the few timorous natives left were slow in making an appearance. The old Indian fields, cleared and fallow, lay ready to their hands.

The Indians taught them how to plant their corn in hills and fertilize with fish. Bradford relates that in April, 1621, “They began to plant their corne, in which service Squanto stood them in great stead, showing ye manner how to set it and after how to dress and tend it. And he tould them, excepte they got fish and set with it (in these old grounds) it would come to nothing.” Thomas Morton in his “New England’s Canaan” says,—”You may see in one township a hundred acres together set with fish, every acre taking 1000 of them, & an acre thus dressed will produce and yield as much corn as 3 acres without fish.” From the Indians they learned how to store their corn in cribs set on posts, how to preserve the corn on the cob by braiding the husks, how to braid the corn-husks into mats, and how to pound the corn, for hominy, in a mortar, and many ways of durably staining and dyeing fabrics.

The settlers received from the Indians as gifts of their long cultivation, maize, squashes, pumpkins, beans, and tobacco. The art of maple sugar making had long been cultivated by the Indians, and an account of their methods was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society as early as 1634. The Indians taught the colonists how to make the brain tanned deerskins, so soft and flexible for garments. They learned from the Indians the use of hot steam baths and the sweating hut in illness. But the good Puritans did not take so kindly to such rigorous and cleansing methods of restoring health as they did to the Indian `medicine manes’ herbs. The Indian doctor was early called upon by the settlers for medical aid. Lobelia, witch hazel, cascara, Indian hemp were all derived from the native New England Indian materia medica.

Wampum, the medium of exchange with the Indian tribes, soon be-came the common currency of the white settlers. Governor Winslow speaks of it as “their goulde.” When he sent the spoils of King Philip to the King of England, he described them as “being his Crowne, his Gorge, and two Belts of their own making of their goulde or silver.” Not only did the settlers quickly adopt the Indian mode of scouting and concealment in warfare, usages which have since become so widespread, but they learned from them methods of hunting and trapping.

The opportunities for profit in the new country created a demand for labor difficult to meet. The New England Indian was a creature of the wild; the Puritans wanted to make him a laborer. Soon the colonists were fining and imprisoning the natives for petty misdemeanors, and utilizing their forced labor. Excuses which would not meet modem criticism were deemed sufficient to compel them to service. In 1634 a special grant of one Indian was made to Winthrop and another to his son. In I637 Hugh Peter, hearing of dividends of women and children from the captives of the Pequot War, wrote to John Winthrop, Jr., that he would like “a young woman or girl or boy, if you think good. Also some boys for Bermudas.” These latter of course were merely so much merchandise to be sold for profit.

The New England Indians continued to be enslaved until the eighteenth century, or as long as the local tribes lasted. As the supply failed, Indians were imported from the Carolinas and they in turn were later supplanted by negroes. Though the records show a negro boy in Hartford as early as 1639, importation of negroes on a large scale did not begin until toward the end of the seventeenth century. In 1696 the brigantine “Sea Flower” of Boston, Thomas Winsor, master, imported from Africa to Rhode Island forty-seven negroes. Fourteen were there sold at thirty pounds per head, and the rest he carried by land “to Boston where their owners lived.” Thereafter the rum and `nigger’ traffic of Rhode Island prospered.

Governor Hopkins stated that for thirty years prior to 1764 Rhode Island annually sent eighteen vessels carrying rum to the slave coast. The trade was so profitable that Boston and Salem merchants naturally engaged in it, and many respectable names both in history and in present day affairs owed their rise to prominence to the fortunes so acquired.

Boston was a considerable mart for negroes. In the “Boston News Letter” of 1736 were advertised “just imported from Guinea a parcel of likely young negro boys and girls.” In 1762 were advertised a “number of prime Goree and Senegal slaves.” A writer in the “Boston News Letter” in 1769 claimed that “upon examining the imports of negroes, 23,743 were brought into this province” during the decade from 1756 to 1766.

New England thrift swelled the profits of the trade. We see an example of it in the crafty instructions of Captain Simeon Potter of Bristol to his supercargo as to the African trade:—”Worter ye Rum as much as possible and sell as much by the short mesuer as you can.” `The Cradle of Liberty’ was in part built from profits of the slave trade which Peter Faneuil pursued successfully if not too scrupulously. The vessels engaged in the trade were mostly of small tonnage,—one hundred tons and’ less. The space allowed the negroes during the voyage was from ten to twelve inches wide and three feet, nine inches high.

All classes entered into the trade. A respectable elder whose ventures had proved successful returned thanks on Sunday “that an overruling Providence had been pleased to bring to this land of freedom another cargo of benighted heathen, to enjoy the blessing of a Gospel dispensation.” The Rev. Ezra Stiles, later President of Yale College, and one of the first vigorous advocates of emancipation, in his early days “sent a barrel of rum to Africa to be exchanged for a negro slave,” claiming “it is a great privilege for the poor negroes to be taken from the ignorant and wicked people of Gurney and placed in a Christian land.”

Slavery flourished in portions of New England up to the time of the Revolution and continued to exist for half a century more. In 1756 there were 3636 slaves, one to every thirty-five whites. In I774 the number had been doubled,—one to every twenty-nine whites. As late as 1800 there were 4330 slaves in New England. In 1774 the Connecticut ” Gazetteer ” carried the following advertisement:

“TEN DOLLARS REWARD. Run away from the subscriber in Canterbury, a Mulatto slave. He is a slender built fellow, has thick Lips, a curled mulatto Head of Hair uncut, and goes stooping forward.”

Not until 1848, when slavery had proved so unprofitable that there were but six slaves left in the State, did Connecticut pass an act of emancipation.