Native American Resistance and Assistance in the 17th Century


Spanish settlements in Santa Fe and St. Augustine radiated outwards, converting, enslaving, and infecting the local populations (Pueblo in New Mexico, Guale and Timucua in Florida). Settlements included people of Spanish, African, and Indians descent and all of whom were considered Spanish subjects. Sometimes the native populations converted and cooperated, other times they were forced into the encomienda (forced labor) system, and at other times they resisted and rebelled (1656 Timucua led a months-long uprising in Florida; 1680 Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico). Still, most of the local peoples were decimated by disease.


In 1620 The Mayflower carried the first Puritans from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were aided by a Native American named Squanto who spoke fluent English. As a boy he had seen the English and French trading with locals for pelt and corn who were sometimes taken captive as slaves. In 1614 Squanto was taken captive with 27 others by an English fisherman, but he was rescued en route to the Mediterranean slave market by Spanish friars. Squanto traveled to England and Newfoundland and then returned home to find his village destroyed from disease. He aided the Plymouth settlers as a translator and negotiator with the local people. Soon more arriving Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay colony and Boston, governed by the committed Calvinist John Winthrop who declared, “We shall be as a city upon a hill.” Many of these first settlers were fleeing religious persecution; twenty percent were indentured servants.

Colonist Roger Williams challenged the Massachusetts Bay colony leaders on matters of church and state as well as argued the land patent from the English King was invalid and that they should purchase occupancy rights from the Native Americans. After being banished from the colony in 1635 he joined the Narragansett Indians to the south and established a refuge for other dissenters called Providence. In 1644 the colony of Rhode Island was granted a charter.

Massachusetts Bay colonist Anne Hutchinson also challenged the authority, the patriarchy, and the religious domination of the colony’s leaders. She too was banished but not before she had inspired so many followers that the Puritan establishment created Harvard College to educate and prepare loyal ministers. She moved to the Hudson River where she and her family were ultimately killed by Native Americans. She is the namesake of the Hutchinson Parkway in the Bronx.

As the Hutchinsons discovered, newcomers who pushed inland were co-opting the land of longtime residents. Pressure on New England’s Native Americans and English paranoia instigated the Pequot War of 1637. The Pequot Indians near the mouth of the Connecticut River had been English allies for years and disease had diminished their population. Still, John Winthrop feared that they would ally with other nations to “root out all the English.” The English recruited Narragansett and Mohegan Indians and started a war with the Pequot that culminated in a brutal raid on noncombatants in Mystic, Connecticut where 400 Pequot were slaughtered and many others sold into slavery in Bermuda.

Preceding the arrival of enslaved Africans, the first New England slaves were taken in the Pequot War. English settlers sold their Pequot captives into West Indian slavery. The following year, the Salem vessel Desire returned from the West Indies with “salt, cotton, tobacco, and Negroes” who had been exchanged for some of the enslaved Pequot prisoners of war. Throughout New England’s colonial era, Indians, Africans, and Europeans might have been enslaved for life or held to service for a period of time. The Massachusetts colony was the first to enact legislation codifying lifetime service. As Lorenzo Greene explains

For a while there was virtually no difference between Negro slavery and indentured servitude….When called upon to decide who should be considered slaves, the Bay Colony legislature boldly legalized perpetual servitude, and in 1641, twenty years before any similar pronouncement by a continental English colony, Massachusetts had ordained the legal enslavement of Indians, whites and Negroes. (The Negro in Colonial New England, p. 125.)

Slavery in the Puritan colonies resembled the paternalistic institution of the Bible's Old Testament. A 1641 Massachusetts law expressly stated that a slave should “have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel doth morally require” (Green p. 167.) The first mention of slavery in Rhode Island was implicit in a 1652 law that attempted to limit all involuntary servitude to a period of ten years (Green p. 18.) The Northern colonies generally relied on small-scale, household slavery. Mid-18th century Rhode Island, where large livestock farms employed crews of forty to fifty African, European, and Narragansett Indian laborers was an exception.

In 1675, the Wompanoags and their allies rose up across southern New England in Metacom's War, also know as King Philip's War. By that time, the Native Americans of New England had endured several generations of colonization. Some had converted to Christianity, used English weapons, and were literate in English (Harvard's Indian College also taught prospective Indian ministers Latin and Greek). Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader (or sachem) who had assisted the Pilgrams at Plymouth made sure his sons Wamsutta and Metacom learned English ways. After the death of Massasoit and Wamsutta, Metacom came to power and became increasingly concerned by English practices (like getting Indians drunk and then cheating them in trade, permitting English livestock to trample Wampanoag crops, and encroaching on their land.) The death of a Christian Indian sparked open warfare and prompted the Naragansettes to ally with the Wampanoag creating a powerful force that devastated several New England towns. After several months, however, this force was weakened by sickness and a lack of food and gunpowder. The colonists won, but the cost was tremendous. The Christianized "praying Indians," who were distrusted by both sides, suffered greatly as well.



In 1608, in an effort to secure the support of Indian leadership, the English performed a ceremony granting a scarlet cloak and copper crown to Chief Powhatan. But two years later, suspicious that he was harboring runaway colonists (see James Axtell on “white Indians”) the English burned surrounding Indians villages along with much needed corn. The hopes of reconciliation rose with the marriage of Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, to John Rolfe in 1614. Powhatan’s successor, however, attempted to destroy the English interlopers who were already dying off in droves from disease and poor conditions, and initiated a ten-year war in 1622 and another war in 1644. Despite a great number of causalities, Jamestown survived and ultimately assassinated the Powhatan chief and exacted tribute from the remaining Powhatan Confederacy.

In 1632 England’s King Charles I granted Lord Baltimore 10 million acres adjacent to Virginia to be named Maryland in honor of the Catholic queen. Civil war in England led to the beheading of Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of an anti-Catholic commonwealth. Maryland was to provide refuge for English Catholics although they would never become a majority and religious tolerance for Catholics was not always maintained. It has been estimated that perhaps 85 percent of Maryland’s first settlers were indentured servants.

In 1664 Maryland enacted a statute, preceding the emergence of the term white by almost two decades, that said “any freeborn English woman” who married a slave would become the lifetime servant of his master as would her offspring. Some women may have chosen love and lifetime servitude, however, planters who sought the economic advantage of lifetime service coerced servants into marriage. When Lord Baltimore learned that an unscrupulous new master had forced his former servant, Irish Nell, into such a marriage, he sought the law’s repeal. The new act of 1681 referred specifically to “free-born English women, or white women” and stated that the child of a woman-servant and a slave would be free. This 1681 statute is perhaps the first use of the term white as a racial designation in colonial American law.



In 1689, the Iroquois, armed with English weapons, raided the French settlement of Montreal. This initiated eight years of bloody frontier battles between the English and the French and their Native American allies in the Northeast. These battles would become known as King William’s War and as the first of many colonial conflicts between France and England for supremacy in North America. The war ended in stalemate and the desire of the Iroquois League to remain neutral in future colonial wars.

King William’s War was named for England’s new Protestant king William (of William and Mary), who had been invited to supplant Catholic King James II after England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution (so named because it was bloodless and because it signaled a shift in England’s political structure that lessened the power of the king and gave greater power to Parliament.) King William along with German and Dutch monarchs wanted to inhibit the expansion of France’s power and empire under Louis XIV.

Louis XIV had encouraged French explorers like La Salle to travel from Canada, south of the Great Lakes, down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, and to declare the territory around the southern Mississippi “Louisiana.” Early French attempts at southern settlement failed, but after King William’s War, France revived her “southern strategy.”