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Religious encounters in a colonial context: New England and New France in the seventeenth century.

Though European Christian Missionaries were active on a number of fronts in eastern North America during the seventeenth century, the areas where their presence was most decisive in shaping the outcome of colonial encounters for native communities were southern New England, where Puritans sought to win over Massachusetts, Nipmucks, and Wampanoags; and New France, where Jesuits mounted an especially concerted efforts to convert the Huron nation.(1) In evaluating these two religious encounters, scholars during the past two decades have emphasized the ways in which missionaries were linked to larger processes of European colonial expansion, and the different approaches to Indians taken by French Jesuits and English Puritans.(2) But some recent scholarship on southern New England Indians, particularly for the eighteenth century, and on aspects of the Jesuit-Huron relationship, especially by Bruce Trigger, suggests the need to rethink some of the generalizations conventionally employed in discussions of religious encounters in New England and New France. In this paper, I want no more than simply to suggest where such rethinking might lead us, rather than report on completed research with definitive conclusions.

Southern New England was settled primarily by independent, "middling" farm families, most of whom adhered at least nominally to the radical, voluntaristic Puritanism that defined the colonies' very purpose. The earliest English settlers were enjoined to create a godly community, an example to militant Protestants in Europe of a people living in harmony with one another - and with the natives. The Massachusetts Bay colony's seal depicted an Indian pleading, "Come over and help us," and Puritan leaders confidently expected that the Indians would embrace Christianity, not through the exhortations of missionaries but through the godly example of ordinary settlers.(3)

To the English, the epidemic that swept away 90% of the coastal Massachusetts and Wampanoag Indians from 1616-19 was one of many signs that divine providence favoring their undertaking. For their part, the natives feared that the plague was something that the English had brought and could inflict upon them again. With their enormous technological achievements and their remarkable system of communication, as well as the destructive force of their diseases and weapons, the English appeared to possess great resources of supernatural power, what the Indians called manitou. Their awe quickened English expectations that the natives' conversion was imminent. But the Indians' initial recognition of manitou in the English, far from representing a move away from their own religion, was actually a confirmation of it. While fearing the English ability to revisit them with the plague, the Wampanoags also saw it as a sign that they had failed to perform the appropriate rituals honoring Cautantowwit, the supernatural being whom they considered the source of maize. As Roger Williams came to recognize, the sources of manitou were infinite in number, and Indians sought to benefit from it wherever they could find it.(4)

Access to manitou was obtained above all through reciprocal exchanges with those who possessed it. In this way what Williams called the "excellence" of manitou was distributed as widely as possible. To the Indians, material goods such as brass arrowheads, copper kettles, iron axes, glass beads, and textiles were not only functionally or aesthetically valuable but actually transmitted some of the extraordinary power and brilliance behind their creation.

The evidence for the Indian understanding of this relationship comes above all from their graves. Southern New England Indians were customarily buried with a few prized personal possessions to take with them to Cautantowwit's house, where they expected to dwell forever. As epidemics and other factors arising from the English invasion brought catastrophic losses of population, the Indians established large cemeteries, and the quantity of goods that each one took to Cautantowwit's house rose remarkably. Much, though by no means all, of the additional quantity consisted of European manufactured goods. It is clear from the archaeological evidence that in embracing much of European material culture, these Indians were not turning away from their relationship with Cautantowwit - the basis of their identity as Indians - but rather seeking to reinforce it by integrating the spiritual power of the newcomers with their own.(5)

By the mid-1640s, a decade and a half after the founding of Massachusetts Bay, some Puritans recognized that the "godly example" of their fellows would be insufficient for bringing the Indians to Christianity. Most settlers regarded the Indians as impediments to the land they sought for themselves. The few natives who had expressed interest so far had died of smallpox, and detractors of the colonists in England were calling attention to the lack of converts in Parliament and the press. Accordingly, the colony passed legislation requiring all Indians to undertake religious instruction, and the missionary, John Eliot, began his remarkable career. Over the next three decades, Eliot translated the Bible and many other tracts into the Algonquian language, formed several "praying towns" of Indian converts, established schools and congregations, raised funds in England by publishing almost annual accounts of his accomplishments, defended his "praying Indians" against their Indian and white detractors, and persuaded dozens if not hundreds of natives to forgo their customary beliefs for the hope of salvation through God's grace. Eliot's tracts spell out in illuminating, if one-sided, detail how he pursued his prescription that "civilization" must necessarily precede Christianity and how converts were induced to repudiate their traditional ways of life.(6)

The Indians who responded to Eliot and his fellow Puritan missionaries - Thomas Mayhew of Martha's Vineyard, and Richard Bourne and John Cotton, Jr., of Plymouth - resided in the tiny coastal communities that had been devastated by epidemics and were not separated from larger concentrations of natives by newly arrived settlers. The missionaries cited the epidemics and subsequent health problems suffered by the Indians to discredit their shamans, and offered tools, cloth, and other trade goods in exchange for their abandoning hunting and gathering (and the land used for these purposes) for life as "settled" farmers.(7)

Even many of these "red Puritans" failed to heed literally and completely Eliot's strictures regarding the need to transcend "savagery" for "civilization" as a prerequisite for conversion. He reported numerous instances of backsliding, and it is clear that many "praying Indians" followed older subsistence patterns rather than remaining settled in their towns the year round. A recent archaeological investigation suggests that they exchanged with other Indians many of the tools, clothes, and other items that Eliot furnished them for their "civilization." in so doing they reentered the social world of gift exchanges from which their isolation and conversions excluded them. In return they obtained other goods, both European and Indian, which they took to their graves. To these Indians, Cautantowwit's house and God's heaven were one and the same. Massachusetts Christians also insisted, contrary to Eliot's initial intention, that praying town magistrates not be chosen by election but be persons who would otherwise have served as sachems. And when King Philip's War broke out in 1675, the racist hostility of the settlers led many of Eliot's converts to desert him for the nativist cause.(8)

That racism continued after the Indians' devastating defeat, when all natives, friendly and hostile, Christian and traditionalist, were confined to reservations and relegated to an inferior legal and social status. Though enclaves of Christian Indians remained after the war, no new converts would join their ranks until nearly a century later.(9)

The French established their colonial presence in Canada by allying with the Algonquins and Montagnais of the St. Lawrence plus the Hurons against the Five Nations Iroquois to the south. In 1609 and again in 1610, French guns helped these Indians rout Mohawk Iroquois raiders, turning the Mohawks toward the newly arrived Dutch on the Hudson as their source of guns and other trade goods. Thereafter, the French-Huron alliance became the mainstay for both partners. Furs conveyed by Hurons supported New France's economy while perpetuating the Huron confederacy's pre-colonial role as a fulcrum of regional exchange. When the Jesuits assumed complete control of missionary activity after the English occupied Canada from 1629 to 1632, the French insisted, as the price of reviving the alliance, that the Hurons accept Jesuits in their villages in place of the traders who had formerly resided there. Though uncomfortable with these terms, the Hurons agreed because trade with the French had become central not only to their exchanges with neighboring Indians but for protection against the Iroquois.(10)

The renewal of the Huron-French alliance coincided with the beginning of nearly a decade of successive epidemics, including smallpox, influenza, and other maladies that ended with the Huron population of 21,000 cut to about 10,000. As disease and death swept the Hurons, they resorted to familiar means of explaining and combating the outbreaks. They invoked traditional rituals while their shamans fasted and dreamed in hopes of discovering new, more effective solutions. As a people who placed high priority on consensual harmony, they also feared witchcraft. After a few Hurons were accused, attention focused on the Jesuits. The Indians noted that the epidemics began shortly after the missionaries' arrival in their villages. The fact that the Jesuits were spared led some Hurons to assume that conversion would save them too; when it failed to do so, many saw it as further evidence of Jesuit malevolence. And the Jesuits' insistence on baptizing only the dying led the Hurons to assume a cause-and-effect relationship here as well.(11)

Though most Hurons would have liked to rid themselves of the Jesuits and their destructive power, they were restrained by their dependence on trade with the French. It is noteworthy that no suspicion or hostile action was ever directed against French traders and officials during the outrage over Jesuit witchcraft. Indeed, despite the 50% decline in Huron population during the 1630s, the volume of trade with the French remained about the same, meaning that the survivors were relatively more dependent on it. As the Hurons incorporated the fur trade into the very fabric of their society and beliefs, the Jesuits remained an alien force. The decade of death never led many Hurons to become seriously disillusioned with their own religion, but only to believe that they had not found the appropriate counter-magic to use against the Jesuits.(12)

Success began to come to the Jesuits during the 1640s, however, as the epidemics receded and the missionaries concentrated on repairing their reputation and gaining more long-term converts. To a significant degree, these successes were due to a recognition by Jerome Lalemant, who became superior in 1638, that the Jesuits needed to be more closely associated in Huron minds with the fur trade and with protection from the Iroquois. Accordingly, Huron traders who became Christians were given special treatment at French trading posts. They were separated from non-Christian Indians, accorded more honorable treatment, sold European goods at lower prices, and allowed to buy guns.(13)

In spite of these inducements, the Jesuits' success remained sharply limited. Though over half the Huron traders converted before 1648, less than 15% of the total population was Christian. Instead of the mass Christianization they had sought, the missionaries had simply disrupted a society that placed high value on consensus in its social, political, and religious life. Their insistence that converts abandon traditional religious practices extended to community rituals such as funerals, the periodic reburials known as Feasts of the Dead, and war parties against the Iroquois. The result was bitter factionalism characterized by violence, family quarrels, threats, and bribes. The missionaries' very success with some Hurons reinforced the rest in their conviction that the Jesuits sought to destroy their ties to the supernatural forces that held their society together.(14)

What made the Jesuits all the more threatening was the fact that they were assaulting Huron society at the same time as they were the Five Nation Iroquois. As most scholars have pointed out, Iroquois-Huron rivalry was primarily economic. The Iroquois sought the thick, northern pelts that the Hurons and their allies carried to the French; unable to obtain them peacefully, they used the guns obtained from their Dutch partners to attack parties of Indians carrying furs to the French. In their "Beaver Wars" of the 1640s and 1650s, the Iroquois went beyond raiding to destroy their Huron, Neutral, and Erie rivals. But it is clear that the Iroquois thought of their actions in wider terms than economic. For they not only returned from their expeditions with furs and trade goods but with captives, some of whom were ritually executed but most of whom were adopted by Iroquois families. These captives served to replenish the Iroquois' own ranks, depleted as these were by epidemics and war.(15)

As they stepped up their attacks in the late 1640s, the Iroquois offered the Hurons peace, trade through them with the Dutch, and the opportunity to be reunited with their captured relatives. These promises had an impact on the Hurons; by 1648 many anti-Jesuit traditionalists among the Hurons favored dropping the French alliance for one with the Iroquois. (They were reinforced by the fact that the Iroquois were better armed because the Dutch, unlike the French, did not discriminate on the basis of religion when selling guns.) But most Hurons, even those opposed to the Jesuits, feared the Iroquois even more and opted to retain the French alliance.16

In spite of this decision, the Huron nation finally cracked under the pressure of two opposing forces. As the Iroquois began attacking and destroying entire villages, the Jesuits relaxed some of their requirements for baptism and instituted mass conversion. By 1649, over half the nation had abandoned its traditions by becoming Christian. But far from animating the converts, as Bruce Trigger has made clear, their new faith appears to have been an act of resignation in which they surrendered control of their destiny to the French and their spiritual warriors. A similar resignation overtook the remaining non-Christians, who now passively awaited their fate, be it as French subjects or as Iroquois adoptees. By the end of 1649, Iroquois attacks and famine had dispersed the Hurons, with some fleeing to other Iroquoian-speaking communities in Canada, some remaining with the Jesuits and eventually establishing a Christian community at Lorette, and many voluntarily joining the Five Nations Iroquois.(17)

The respective outcomes of missionary activity in New France and New England call into question much of the conventional wisdom regarding the differences between French Jesuits and English Puritans. According to this thinking, the French in general had a more relaxed, liberal attitude toward Native Americans that was reflected in the supposed "cultural relativism" of the Jesuits. English Puritan missionaries, on the other hand, are supposed to have been cultural absolutists, as close to totalitarian in their approach to Indians as was possible in a pre-totalitarian age. In fact, both groups of missionaries were about equally determined to impose their religious systems on natives at any cost. The difference was in their results rather than their intentions.

To the extent that the Jesuits were relativistic, it was less toward Huron culture than toward French secular interests. They quite deliberately tied Indian salvation to productive labor for French markets and sweetened the reward for such labor with material benefits. Then, as the Iroquois threat mounted in the late 1640s, the Jesuits and their converts increasingly defied the conventions on which consensus and stability in Huron society were based. 18 But having placed the Hurons in jeopardy, the Jesuits were unable to provide them with the means to resist and prevent demographic disaster and political termination. It is true that some survivors of the dispersal were protected by Jesuits, who facilitated the later establishment of Lorette. And many of the Hurons who did go to live among the Iroquois retained Christian identities they would later reassert. But the price paid by these converts was a heavy one indeed.

Puritan missionaries in southern New England likewise acted in accordance with the larger economic and political goals of the English colonial effort. These goals were expropriating Indian land for occupation by settlers and generally making the colonies secure from Indian hostility. But because Puritan missionaries did not live in Indian towns, had larger responsibilities within settler communities, and lacked the kind of political power wielded by the Jesuits in their own society, they could not enforce their strictures as rigorously. The kind of factionalism that tore Huron society apart appeared initially in some Massachusetts and Wampanoag communities, but then dissolved as new consensuses arose that enabled Indians to incorporate Christianity into more traditional settings.(19) While these communities suffered heavy losses of land and people in the colonial period, survivors and their descendants persisted into the eighteenth century on portions of their original land bases. Although populations and land bases declined sharply in the late eighteenth century, leading many of these communities to dissolve as formal entities, this was due not to the missionaries but to larger demographic and economic forces generated by English colonial society.(20) While the Puritan missionaries were no more benevolent in their intentions than the Jesuits, their own ineptitude, ignorance, and powerlessness provided openings for southern New England Algonquians that the Jesuits did not allow the Hurons.

The example of the Five Nations Iroquois and their relationship with the Hurons reminds us, too, that spiritual warfare in colonial North America did not simply involve missionaries and those Indians they had targeted for conversion. It suggests that there was an ideological and even spiritual dimension in at least some of the warfare that erupted among Indians in connection with European expansion. Were the Five Nations not in fact offering the Hurons an alternative solution to that of the Jesuits, one in which the Hurons would leave the alien, strife-torn world introduced by the Jesuits to come under their Great Tree of Peace?(21) The Hurons' encounter with, and "conversion" by, the Iroquois is a subject that scholars have yet to fully pursue.

As indicated at the outset, the object of this paper has been to raise questions rather than answer them. Scholars no longer doubt that religious encounters can only be understood in relation to the colonial context within which they took place. But we have become accustomed to formulaic conceptions about European nationalities that do not always hold because we misunderstood not the Europeans but the Indians with whom they interacted. And the same kind of misunderstanding has led us to pigeonhole "religion" as an affair confined to missionaries, shamans, and Christian converts rather than as a quality that was integral to the experiences of all Native Americans in a colonial context.


(1.) Portions of this paper appeared previously in "Pueblos, lenguas y evangelizacion en el Area del Norte," Hispania Sacra: Revista de Historia de la Iglesia 40 (1988): 653-674. (2.) E.g., Neal Salisbury, "Red Puritans: The |Praying Indians' of Massachusetts Bay and John Eliot," William and Mary Quarterly 31 (1974): 27-54; Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975); Bruce G. Trigger, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 (2 vols.; Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1976); Denys Delage, Le Pays Renverse: Amerindiens et europeens en Amirique du nord-est, 1600-1664 (Montreal: Boreal Express, 1985); James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures of Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). (3.) Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 166-181. (4.) lbid., 37-39, 106, 175-77, 269 n.47; William S. Simmons, Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984 (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986), p. 41. (5.) William Scranton Simmons, Cautantowwit's House: An Indian Burial Ground on the Island of Conanicut in Narragansett Bay (Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1970); Susan G. Gibson, ed., Burr's Hill: A 17th Century Wampanoag Burial Ground in Warren, Rhode Island (Providence, R.I.: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, 1980); James Axtell, "Last Rights: The Acculturation of Native Funerals in Colonial North America," in Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 110-28; Paul A. Robinson, et al., "Preliminary Biocultural Interpretations from a Seventeenth-century Narragansett Indian Cemetery in Rhode Island," in William W. Fitzhugh, ed., Cultures in Contact: The European Impact on Native Cultural Institutions in Eastern North American, 1000-1800 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), 107-30; Elise M. Brenner, "Sociopolitical Implications of Mortuary Ritual Remains in 17th-Century Native Southern New England," in Mark P. Leone and Parker B. Potter, Jr., The Recovery of Meaning: Historical Archaeolopy in the Eastern United States (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 147-81; Constance A. Crosby, "From Myth to History, or Why King Philip's Ghost Walks Abroad," in ibid., 183-209. (6.) Salisbury, "Red Puritans"; Axtell, Invasion Within, 131-178 passim, 182-186, 218-241. The major "Eliot tracts" are reprinted in Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 3d ser., vol. 4 (1834). (7.) Salisbury, "Red Puritans," 35-37; Simmons, "Conversion from Indian to Puritan," New England Quarterly 52 (1979), 197-218; Axtell, Invasion Within, 161-162; Jean Maria O'Brien, "Community Dynamics in the Indian-English Town of Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1990), 58-59. (8.) Salisbury, "Red Puritans"; Elise Melanie Brenner, "Strategies for Autonomy: An Analysis of Ethnic Mobilization in Seventeenth Century Southern New England" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1984), chs. 5-7; Crosby, "From Myth to History"; O'Brien, "Community Dynamics in Natick," 12-13, 40-41, 49, 62-63, 81-87. For a contrary view, see James Axtell, "Were Indian Conversions Bona Fide?," in Axtell, After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North American (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 116-119. (9.) Salisbury, "Red Puritans," 53-54; William S. Simmons, "Red Yankees: Narragansett Conversion in the Great Awakening," American Ethnologist 10 (1983), 253-271; Axtell, Invasion Within, 196-217. (10). Bruce G. Trigger, Children of Aataentsic, 1:228-433, 2:455-485; Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada's |Heroic Age' Reconsidered (Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen's University Press, 172-183, 194-203, 226-229). (11.) Trigger, Children of Aataentsic, 499-602; Trigger, Natives and Newcomers, 229-231, 233-234, 243-248; Axtell, Invasion Within, 123. (12.) Trigger, Children of Aataentsic, 2:603-661; Trigger, Natives and Newcomers, 248-251. (13.) Trigger, Children of Aataentsic, 2:699-702; Trigger, Natives and Newcomers, 251-256. (14.) Trigger, Children of Aataentsic, 2:702-724; Trigger, Natives and Newcomers, 256-259. (15.) Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 57-74. Richter, "War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 40 (1983), 528-559. For other views of Iroquois captivity, see James Lynch, "The Iroquois Confederacy and the Adoption and Administration of Non-Iroquoian Individuals and Groups Prior to 1756," Man in the Northeast, 30 (Fall 1985), 83-99; William A. Starna and Ralph Watkins, "Northern Iroquoian Slavery," Ethnohistory 38 (1991), 34-57. (16.) Trigger, Children of Aataentsic, 2:725-762; Trigger, Natives and Newcombers, 263-265. (17.) Trigger, Children of Aataentsic, 2:762-788, 801-840; Trigger, Ibid., 263-271. (18.) In addition to the works by Trigger, cited above, see Delage, Le Pays Renverse, 173-229. (19.) Simmons, "Conversion from Indian to Puritan"; Kathleen Joan Bragdon, "|Another Tongue Brought In:' An Ethnohistorical Study of Native Writings in Massachusetts," (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1981); Simons, Spirit of the New England Tribes, 73-90; O'Brien, "Community Dynamics in Natick," 69-72. (20.) James P. Ronda, "Generations of Faith: The Christian Indians of Martha's Vineyard," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 38 (1981), 369-394; Bragdon, "Another Tongue Brought In"; O'Brien, "Community Dynamics in Natick"; Daniel R. Mandell, "Behind the Frontier: Indian Communities in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts" (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1992). (21.) Cf. Anthony F.C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York, 1969), 42-43.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Shamans and Preachers, Color Symbolism and Commercial Evangelism: Reflections on Early Mid-Atlantic Religious Encounter in Light of the Columbian Quincentennial
Author:Salisbury, Neal
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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