LOCAL VIEW: The Last of the Puritans

One thing that has fascinated me this summer, as I have studied the history of my own people here in New England, is how the English contingent just plunked themselves down onto the landscape. They were not a people whom the landscape had bred. Initially they had not a clue of the adaptations necessary for the particulars of this part of the planet.  In many ways they fit in about as well as Eskimos in the Sahara Desert. They deserved to wither, like palm trees planted in Siberia, but instead they thrived.

The early Pilgrims and Puritans were well aware how unlikely and even miraculous their success was, and basically concluded what they had been part of was not humanly possible. Therefore they gave glory to God, and felt part of a Greater Plan.

Not that they didn’t suffer the torment of guilt. If you ever have the time to endure reading a lot of blather written in Shakespearean English, read the attempts of men in New England to explain their success, as they saw things back in the 1600’s. It is painful. They tried to see themselves as a “chosen people”, like the Israelite, moving into a Canaan inhabited by Canaanites whom God didn’t approve of, and whom God wiped out.

The “Canaanites” Puritans were up against were the French and Indians, who were (in theory) not “chosen” because they were not Protestant. However something about this Old Testament interpretation of destiny didn’t sit well with “loving thy enemy”, and other New Testament stuff. When you read the writing of the old Puritans you sense they are going on and on and on and on, but failing to convince themselves. (For one thing, they recognized the French they fought were often not Catholics, but Huguenots, and also many Indians were interested in Christianity, and therefore were potential converts.)

In conclusion, they couldn’t really explain the Greater Plan they found themselves part of. Nor can I. In retrospect, their success still seems baffling, and impossible, to this day.

Basically the Puritans were a bunch of people who wanted to study the Bible, and to practice Christianity as the Bible stated it should be practiced. They had noticed the Bible didn’t mention men being ruled by Priests and a Pope, nor by an alternative Archbishop of the Church-of-England, and a King-of-England.  They wanted to just get away from such bossy people, people so bossy that even to call them bossy could get you in trouble, as it was tantamount to heresy and treason.

.The Puritans felt that if only, (how sad those words “if only” can be), there was a place, somewhere,  where Christians could form towns and behave as Jesus advised, the rest of the world would sit up and be amazed. But what chance had they that the world would give them such a place, or such a chance? “No Vacancy” signs were everywhere.

The likelihood seemed very small. Rather than tolerance, the non-stop warring between Catholics and Protestants was worsening. England was struggling with a revival of Catholicism promoted by King James,  (and the idea of a Cromwell leading a civil war’s backlash in only twenty years seemed beyond even a pipe-dream). The original Pilgrims had fled to the Netherlands. There seemed to be no place on earth for them to form their dreamed-of little towns, where they could show the rest of the world what life could be like “if only.”

What then happened is bizarre. In 22 years an area which held roughly 30,000 native Massachusetts became an area which held roughly 30,000 immigrant Puritans, without there being a battle of 30,000 locals against 30,000 invaders. How could this happen?

What happened was a pandemic all but erased the civilization called the “Massachusetts” between 1617 and 1620. (Where an “epidemic” selectively kills the old, infirm,very young and very weak, a “pandemic” is utterly democratic, and in this case it wiped out 95% of the Massachusetts.)  (Oddly, it didn’t have the same cruel effect on the Micmac to the north or the Wampanog to the south.)

Only after this disaster did 30,000 Puritans, apparently aware of a “Vacancy” sign, descend upon the landscape between 1620 and 1640. There was no war. There was no oppression. There was simply a void, and a people who filled it, boatload after boatload after boatload.

Or, well, if you insist, there was some exploitation. The Puritans saw a vacancy and exploited it. However it was not exploitation as we usually define the word, with evictions, and with widows and orphans neglected. Rather it involved immigrants entering an empty and gruesome landscape, literally littered with skulls.

And Yes, there were some “wars” during that time, but they involved a hundred against a hundred, and the skirmishes just as often involved local clans against local clans. But there was no D-day invasion with 30,000 pitted against 30,000.

What strikes me, as I look back, is how ill-adapted these immigrants were, as they set up facsimile of European towns on a different continent. They should have starved, and would have starved, if a few pragmatic individuals hadn’t “gone native”. The Pilgrims would have died out were it not for the advice they got from Squanto. But they they didn’t die out. Instead roughly 30 million Americans now can look up to the higher branches of their family tree, and see at least one who was on the Mayflower, part of a group of 100 pathetic, ill-adapted and slightly mad Christians.

What is somewhat amazing is the faith the Puritans had they would succeed, even in their darkest moments. They would think back to Genesis, when Sarah and Abraham were old and barren, yet were promised that their descendants would be as numerous as stars in the sky. What troubled Puritans (at times) was that they understood this didn’t only apply to them, but also to the French and the Indians. They too could be reduced to only a 100, yet rebound to 30 million.

I sometimes wonder what happened to the remnant of the Massachusetts. When I look at a map I see no “Massachusetts Reservation” for survivors of that once-great civilization. In books I read that the captives and the defeated in wars, at that time, (if not ransomed), were enslaved, and some members of the Massachusetts wound up as slaves down in the Caribbean. There are a few interesting pockets of people down there, and I wonder if they might represent an incubating hundred, quietly awaiting their time, when they may astound the rich and powerful with their proliferation. Lastly I read there was a group called “The Praying Indians” who did survive, and still exist. (Another story for another evening.)

More obvious is the survival of the Massachusetts in mental realms. Just as, when Rome conquered Greece, they were so impressed by Grecian ideas, and adopted so many, that it can be said Greece won, or won part of the Roman mind,  so too it can be said that, for their own survival, New England’s Puritans had to adopt some native ideas. However they did not reject their idea of plunking down European villages into an American landscape.

Why should they? Their way worked. By 1680 Boston was the largest “city” north of Mexico. (With a population of 4,500.) As years passed Boston remained the greatest conglomeration of pathetic, ill-adapted and slightly mad Christians. By 1740 their population had quadrupled, (to 16,400 people, well ahead of third-place New York City, which only owned 11,000.)

Success does tend to breed arrogance, which earns rebuke. By 1760 Boston’s population had dropped to 15,600, while Philadelphia had nearly doubled to 23,800, and even New York had passed Boston and achieved 18,000 inhabitants. What was Boston’s blunder?

The blunder was called the “Seven Year’s War” in Europe, and most historians focus on the English and French, and which tribes of Native Americans sided with which European King. Very few historians seem to notice a bunch of pathetic, ill adapted and slightly mad Christians who were swept up into the middle of the European and Native American nonsense, often got their butts kicked soundly,  saw some of their villages wiped from the face of the earth, and decided maybe they should not look to Europe for help.  It was only 20 years later that Boston led the charge for independence from all European bosses. Many see “a sense of freedom from the French and Indian threat” as being a cause for America’s sense of independence from Europe. Few historians seem to see independence was a logical response to being treated badly, during the Seven Years War.

Treated Badly? That’s what the English asked, utterly amazed. They felt they had protected America from the French, and spent a lot of money doing so, and therefore the colonists owed them and should pay taxes in gratitude. But what the English had in fact done, by defeating the French and Indians,  is to completely destabilize the delicate political balance of an area they misunderstood.

The bigwigs (and rich Europeans at that time did wear big wigs), saw entire peoples as checkers on a game board, and after each war the losers would cede a bit of land here or there, and then get on with  the next game war. There is something a little surreal in the attitude they took toward world politics. Their hands were never dirty and they didn’t even raise their voices. However the peoples they were dealing with were not checkers on a game board, because checkers never bleed and checkers never weep.

The Puritans of New England didn’t like being treated like checkers. Perhaps no people does. However the bigwigs of England, claiming they were only seeking the best interests of New England, entered into alliances with the Iroquois tribe, promising to protect Iroquois from their rivals. The rivals of the Iroquois were not only the French and Algonquin, but also the English colonists of New England. This caused the English in America to feel their leaders in England supported their rivals more than themselves. It was adultery, and grounds for divorce.

However I am way ahead of myself here, and need to back track. I need to go back to before the Seven Years War even began, to a point where my Puritan ancestors were plopping European villages onto the American landscape. This caused conflict between them and my French and Abenaki ancestors, because it involved two competing economic systems, with the Puritan’s based on farming, and the French and Indian’s based on fur-trading.

A natural boundary between agriculture and hunting had been been in place for at least a thousand years, and it was created by the length of the growing season. It took a hundred days to grow Indian corn, and north of where such a growing season could be relied upon growing corn was a gamble. If the first frost was late you might reap a bonanza and get fat all winter, but if there was an early frost you’d face crop failure and had better have a plan B. Therefore, while southern Algonquin were “agricultural” peoples, northern Algonquin were “hunter-gathers”.  Both people were highly mobile, and didn’t subscribe to the European idea of fixed villages, but the southern Algonquin were more settled, for they were held in place by their cornfields. This didn’t mean 90% of the village might not be out of town, but 10% were fixed from April through October by the need to fertilize, hoe and harvest the corn crop, which they did depend on. To the north, where corn was not dependable, the population was far more flexible, and might be harvesting the run of shad, herring and salmon by a river in the spring, and hunting deer a hundred miles away in the autumn. In both cases the idea of cramping your life down into the bounds of a Puritan’s eighty-acre, self-sustaining farm was laughable. Native Americans didn’t know how to do it, and what is more, they did not want to do it. To live within the bounds of eighty acres sounded like jail to them.

The Native American’s lifestyle worked. They were usually well fed, with a high protein diet that made them much taller than Europeans,  However the French had some cool things the Indians wanted. These included copper cooking pots, which worked better than their own birch-bark utensils (which did boil stews, but which you had to be much more careful with, and which didn’t last long), and iron axes (better in many ways than stone age ones, though flint can be sharper),  and guns (sometimes better than a bow and arrow) and, in the case of some coastal clans of the Micmac, square-rigged sailing vessels. But how could a Native American buy such stuff? What did they have that Europe wanted? The answer was: Fur.  Europe lusted for it.

It was for fur that Native American behavior was altered, and they started to spend more time getting furs than they had formally done. This took them into lands they seldom used, called “hunting grounds” in America, and “commons” in Europe.

In America the commons consisted of vast stretches of forest where agriculture was impractical and few could subsist. Once people began seeing profit in such lands, squabbles arose. The problems between the Algonquin and the Iroquois were greatly exacerbated once the French began offering cool stuff for furs. Formally neither wanted all that much to wander for long into what was basically a beautiful wasteland, but suddenly both Iroquois and Algonquin saw profit in the same forests, and, when they rubbed elbows, disputes arose. But that was basically a problem the French had to deal with.

In Europe the medieval society had towns with large “commons” of land all shared. This caused certain problems, if you wanted to modernize your agriculture.  A simple example would be if you wanted to breed your cow to a certain bull. This would be difficult if other farmers had their bulls in a shared pasture. It was difficult to improve the herd. There were many other improvements a “commons” made difficult. Due to these problems the idea of “enclosures” appeared. Unfortunately this sort of improvement often involved a rich person buying all the land, and dispossessing all the other villagers. In fact more food was produced through enclosures, but many lost their homes in the process. A segment of the population was made homeless and unemployed, as a few became rich and had to figure out what to do with their wealth, and with all the people they had dispossessed.

A large number of these homeless people looked for a new home in America. Many had a deep resentment over being booted from the land they had loved and farmed, by rich bigwig fatcats in Europe, and they wanted to own a farm no one could boot them off of. The “enclosures” in European history left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, and in some ways communism’s idea of “collectives” is a theoretic attempt to give the poor their land back. (I don’t think the theory works, but it recognized a problem).

It is important to add distaste-towards-dispossession into the Puritan make-up, as part of what went into their thinking as they plunked down not just farms, but an entire towns, onto the landscape of New England. The dreamed-of “if only” community the Pilgrims and Puritans desired was one which might include a small “common” at the center of a town, but was also a town where each farmer, (and not just the richest man) had his own “enclosure.”

This idea was successful because the individual farmers were open to new ideas in agriculture, and made the farms more productive than Native Americans (and even Europeans) dreamed possible. Native Americans were limited by the fact it took 100 days for corn to grow, but Puritans could grow faster grains, and could produce more meat with cows, goats, sheep, pigs and chickens than Indians could possibly hope to produce by hunting deer. On 80 acres of what was formally deemed “hunting grounds” a farmer could, and did, raise enough food to feed and clothe himself, his wife, and amazing numbers of children, with a surplus to sell. (Surplus of food and clothing to sell, not children.) The lands were rich and the off shore waters were teeming with fish.

(Some state that the land was so rich that the population of the Massachusetts Tribe, before the pandemic, was far higher than other historians estimate. Descriptions of the pre-pandemic landscape include one from a hilltop, around 1615. In this particular tale a shipwrecked sailor, captured and enslaved by the Indians, warns a chief he better stop abusing him, or God will be angry. The chief laughs and takes him up to a hilltop, and shows him the thriving landcape, with cornfields and villages spread out all the way to the coast, and asks, “you think your God can erase all this?”  Then the Pandemic hit. Puritans, of course, latched on to this tale, when they later heard it, but what struck me was how densely populated the landscape was described as being.)

It does not go unnoticed by a people when they are being “outbred” by another, and the Indian families did not usually have enormous amounts of children, (for reasons not discussed by historians, but likely including common sense, and how many people the land could support.) The Puritan families often consisted of ten or more children.

The reason? At that time modernized “enclosed” farming was labor intensive. In Europe the problem was solved by the simple fact that the dispossession of many villagers created a large population of homeless and unemployed people willing to work for low wages, or forced to work as indentured servants. In America the problem was solved by having very large families.

The booming Puritan population needed more land for its maturing children, who wanted farms of their own, which was not a problem as long as there were deserted villages in the pandemic-ravaged landscape which they could occupy for free. When such land was used up friction was inevitable, but to some degree problems were handled in the courts, with land being bought and with disputes being settled in a civilized manner. However in 1675, when the courts became too one-sided, favoring Puritans and “Praying Indians”, three Indians on the non-Puritan side were found guilty of murder and hung, and the situation exploded. Then King Phillip’s War scarred the psyche of New England.

The Puritans had been in some ways cut off from Europe, which was engrossed in the madness of Christians battling Christians. The Catholics-vs.-Protestants Thirty-years-war (1618-1648) involved 8 million deaths in Central Europe, and the English Civil Wars (1642-1649) included an unspoken understanding that no quarter would be given to losers. When Puritans came to power in England their slaughter of rebelling Loyalists and Catholics in Ireland (1650) was so fierce that to this day “May the Curse of Cromwell be on you” is an expression of Irish rage. (Loyalists fleeing England tended to settle in Maryland and Virginia, perhaps even contributing to their slave-owning mentality, which then, after incubating for 200 years, again exploded as America’s Civil War.) When the Loyalists came back into power in England (1660) their expression of hate towards Puritans included digging up Cromwell’s body, hanging it, and then beheading it, with the head displayed on a spike for decades.  In conclusion, European politics weren’t pretty.

Puritans in New England likely hoped they would go unnoticed after Loyalists returned to power in England, and they largely did go unnoticed, for England was otherwise occupied, suffering a dark period where London was decimated by a Plague and a Great Fire, and three wars with the Dutch resulted in the blackest time in the history of the English Navy, with the fleet virtually destroyed. In 1675 the people of New England knew that, if they warred Indians, they likely would do so with little help. It actually was not a good time to pick a fight.

There can be little doubt that the intent of at least some Indians in 1675 was genocide; they wanted to completely erase the Puritans from the landscape. Half the towns in New England were attacked and twelve were destroyed, and a tenth of all fighting-age Puritan men died. The economy was reduced to nearly complete dysfunction, and people lived a year of dread and desperation. However it was worse for the Indians, who to the south were nearly exterminated, including some who were attempting to stay out of the war. To this day King Phillip’s War is not a subject you want to bring up to a Wampanoag.

It is likely that, because this war was fought without much European help, it was the genesis of people in New England feeling like a people apart, and different from Europeans. This attitude was helped along by the fact the English king was anti-Puritan, and the English people, while still leery of Catholicism, were tired of Puritan strictness and wanted their Christmas Trees and Yule Logs back. They felt a certain relief in having a king who knew how to party hearty, and was called “the Merry Monarch.” In New England people were not so relaxed, having just escaped extermination by the skin of their teeth.

While the tribes to the south were decimated, to the north an uneasy peace was signed between my English ancestors and my Abenaki and French ancestors. But there was bound to be trouble, as the fur-based economy and the agricultural economy rubbed against each other.

The unease was often due to the fact the fur-based economy saw a piece of land as “hunting grounds”, while the agricultural economy saw the same piece of land as “uninhabited.”  My Abenaki ancestors might leave an over-hunted forest alone for a few years, (in a sense like a farmer leaving a field fallow), and when they returned they might discover a Puritan town had popped up. This of course led to friction, with my Puritan ancestors behaving like squatters, but claiming the land had been “unused” and they were “putting it to good use”. Friction did not always lead to war, for furs could be traded for food, and Indians greatly liked pork. Agreements were worked out between the sedentary lifestyle and the wandering one, and to this day there are islands in Maine rivers which wandering Indians have the right to return to, and legally “own”, which shows it was possible to make agreements and honor them.

I like to think my ancestors would have worked things out, were it not for Europe. Wars came, because the French and English were battling over in Europe, and they expected loyalty on the part of their subjects overseas. Their wars were definitely not wanted by small farming families out at the edge of the wilderness, and it took nerves of steel and a certain lack of sanity to inhabit such homesteads, and face the risk of raids.

New England had never fully recovered from the prior war before the next one began. As a schoolboy I learned the English names for them, King Phillip’s War (1675-1678); King William’s War (1688-1698);  Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713); King George’s War (1744-1748); French and Indian War (1754-1763). I also learned as a schoolboy that “the English won”, as France lost Canada in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. However in a sense the result was that Europe lost America.

It is difficult to describe the dread the Puritans experienced at that time. The facts fail to portray it. One thinks, there were only 35 years of war in 75 years. Doesn’t that mean there was 40 years of peace? Didn’t a whole generation know peace between 1713 and 1744? Didn’t the population constantly grow?  One looks at the dry statistics of raids, unaware how frightening raids were.

For example, statistics show that Haverill, downstream on the Merrimack River, was raided during King Williams War in 1697. The town was 57 years old and had known relative peace, but now 27 were killed and 13 were taken captive, as many others fled to a garrison which the attackers avoided. End Statistics.

The actual experience of being raided often occurred at twilight, and consisted of the peace being shattered by wild war whoops, gun-fire, screams, and desperate attempts to bring order to panic and to organize some sort of counter attack. In an efficient raid the raid was over before a counter-attack could develop. After the raid was over the bodies were counted, and those who were not dead but missing were assumed to be captives. In Haverill Thomas Duston noted he’d saved seven of his children, but his wife Hannah, her newborn, and their maid were of the missing. I don’t imagine he was happy.

What happened to captives? They were either enslaved by the Indians, (the word “adopted” is often used, which makes it sound nicer than it was), or they were traded to the French, who might see if they could get any ransom for returning them, or might keep them as slaves. Hannah knew what she could expect.

My Abenaki ancestors would retreat a safe distance up the river and then divide up the loot,  which, besides captives, included anything useful they could scoop up in a hurry (axes, knives, cooking pots, a slow piglet, and so on). Hannah, her infant, her maid, and a 14-year-old boy captured earlier in Worcester, wound up in an Abenaki  family-group of two men,three women, and seven children of unspecified ages, likely heading up to the French in Canada. They proceeded by canoe up the Merrimack River past the modern location of the capital. (Concord wasn’t founded for another quarter century). Likely the six-day-old infant was uncomfortable and may have been incessantly crying, which may have been undesirable as it gave away their location, and may have prevented sleep.  One of the men took the baby and killed it by smashing its head against a tree. Likely a stunned silence ensued.

Then the Abenaki did a foolish thing. When you have just killed a mother’s baby, you don’t all go to sleep leaving the mother unbound, with hatchets laying about. I’ll let you fill in the blanks about the political correctness of Hannah’s emotional state, but once the Abenaki were asleep she snatched up a hatchet and began splitting the skulls of sleeping people, with some help from the other two captives. Only one wounded woman and a child escaped. Then, (as if the scene is not bloody enough), she proceeded to scalp all ten corpses. Then the three captives stole a canoe and headed south, hiding during the day and traveling only during the cold March nights, (with temperatures likely dipping below freezing.) Travel was swifter paddling with the current, and in only two or three nights they were home. There likely was a sensation when she pulled up, famished, to the docks of Haverill, but just as likely she got right back to work. Traumatic shock or not, Puritan women with seven children used work and not psychologists as their therapy. Because confidentiality was largely unknown in the Puritan church, the post-raid Haverill services would have been interesting to audit.

The tale of Hannah Duston’s escape was likely well known at the time, and became part of New England lore. Hawthorn, Whittier, and Thoreau all retold her tale before the Civil War. More recently some have retold the the tale, and have commented in high dudgeon that the tale is only an excuse to persecute Indians, referring to writing (which I haven’t found) during the Indian Wars after the American Civil War, which may (or may not) have used the tale to reinforce the racist statement that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” My reply is that bringing up the 1880’s is totally off the point. Puritans did not live in the 1880’s. They lived in the 1600’s, and were fighting for their lives.

Historians far away in time, as well as distance, treat nursing mothers like checkers on a board. Detached intellectuals behave as if politics is all ethereal intellect. It isn’t. It is all well and good to intellectually talk about the merits of Capitalism versus the merits of Communism, and how they might apply to the checker on your game-board called Cambodia, but the people suffering the manifestation of such theory under Pol Pot see such faceless concepts are sheer hell, such so-called “caring” is completely heartless, and, in terms of what really matters, such thinking has the IQ of an earwig.

End rave. I will now state I appreciate historians, but I don’t happen to be one. I deal in lore, and am a word that doesn’t exist: I am a “lorist”. And one part of being a lorist is to employ empathy, and sympathy, and compassion, for all. This is hard, for I have to put myself in the shoes of Hannah, who had a babe snatched from her breast and dashed head-first into a tree, and also I have to be the moccasins of the Abenaki woman who awoke with a glancing hatchet wound to her head and fled with a single child into the night. And then I have to leap across the ocean into the stylish footware of the French King nibbling olives, and the English King slurping lamprey, shifting checkers on their boards.

Don’t try this at home. Being a lorist is no game for the weak and fainthearted.

After Hannah made it home she found time to bring her ten scalps to “court” (a sort of bureaucratic registry-of-scalp-claimants). Some say Hannah only collected the scalps as proof her story was truth, and going to court was an afterthought, but in any case she received 25 pound-sterling, which was good money a pragmatic housewife would not overlook, and was the legal bounty for collecting the scalps of my Abenaki forebears.

Bounty? Yes. At that time, when you went out hunting fur, you had to keep an eye out for other people hunting your fur, for they might make more money off the hair on your head than they would with a muskrat’s.

Allow me a brief sidetrack into the insanity of war. Apparently, when those in authority move checkers on their boards and throw people into conflict, the people actually undergoing the inhumanity of conflict tend to collect trophies. They collect body parts of the people they have fought and defeated. In the Bible the Israelite collected foreskins. Headhunters collected heads. Scalps were taken in both America and Europe. (In our more materialistic times soldiers have tended to desire the guns,  flags, and helmets of foes, but the same trophy-collecting is involved.) However it is only in New England that I see evidence of both the French and English paying a “bounty” for such a macabre trophy. This is horrific, if we are suppose to “love our neighbor.”

When I bring this spiritual point up I often feel like I am dealing with small children, who state “he started it” to avoid the consequences of punching another in the nose. The fact that scalping a neighbor is different from loving a neighbor gets ignored. I’ve had dealings with historians far more learned than I am who waste amazing amounts of time, like little children, trying to figure out “who started it.”

Who started it? There were examples of scalping both in Europe and America before the two peoples ever mingled. (Archaeologists can tell from the skulls they dig up.) In terms of New England, the first recorded scalping I’ve come across was done by the Iroquois, around 1643, in a fight with Hurons and French near Montreal. However the first to pay a “bounty” were likely the English, and the French responded with a counter-bounty for the hair on English heads.

I get the sense the Puritans were in a situation that was escalating, becoming more and more insane. If they tried to run away from the insane frontier to Boston, they might meet people running away from Boston. There was a smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1690 and another in 1702, and at that time quarantine was the only way to avoid infection. The only “vaccine” was to get the illness, and 30% died. (The survivors, immune, manned the places where the infected were penned.) After smallpox passed through a city an uneasy time of health would pass, as a new generation grew up without immunity, and then a new outbreak would occur.

In many ways it is impossible for us to imagine their madness, (just as it would be likely Puritans couldn’t comprehend our madness concerning Global Warming). I’ll just note that a Catholic, Irish washerwoman, fluent in Gallic but barely able to speak English, named Goody Goodman, was hung as a witch in Boston in 1688, and the Salem witch trials occurred in 1692.

(To return to Hannah Duston in 1697, an irony of her situation is that before Hannah’s ordeal her younger sister Elizabeth was supposedly hung, not for witchcraft, but for infanticide.) ( I can’t help but wonder how Puritans explained SIDS.)

A great crisis was challenging the Puritan psyche, basically revolving around the concept of “providence”, and the problem all face when bad things happen to good people, and the afflicted person asks, “Why did a Loving God allow this to happen?” I won’t dive into this topic at this time, as it challenges thinkers of all backgrounds even to this day, but if you want the Puritan view, complete with the witchcraft madness, one needs only to read the roughly 500 works of Cotton Mather.  (He seemed to rush about investigating everything, displaying huge double standards, brilliance and darkness,  and he contemplated an amazing number of issues that troubled New England’s minds for generations afterwards.) (Among other things, he sought out and interviewed Hannah Duston.)

So explosive are the topics the Puritan mind was dealing with that I can make trouble with ease, to this day, by bringing them up. So I won’t, except to say the blood in my veins seems to demonstrate the issues were resolved, to some degree, by people who were neither intellectuals nor blue bloods. Out on the periphery there existed small farms, where people still held the original dream of their great grandparents in Europe, who wanted to find a place where Christians could form towns and behave as Jesus advised, creating such a community of love that the rest of the world would sit up and be amazed.

The fact that, instead of utopia, warfare was escalating, and behavior didn’t involve loving neighbors, was a bad joke, and perhaps the best way to view such escalating vengeance is to reduce it to absurdity:


Some will be absolutely furious with me for making light of serious and significant issues, but in a sense I feel they are only attempting to perpetuate a feud that has gone on for nearly four hundred years. They fail to understand that the people out in the periphery made peace and blended their bloods.

This blending was actually done in Europe as well. Certain marriages between royalty would make peace between warring peoples, making a greater nation. Ferdinand and Isabella wed Aragon to Castile and formed the great nation of Spain, and the Hapburgs went on from there, gaining far more lands through marriage than warriors could gain through brave and bloody battles.

It is interesting that the same thing happened in New England, between the French and Indians. The richest French fur-traders would marry the daughters of the most powerful chiefs, as a way of cementing an alliance, and one would suppose the children of such superior people would be superior, or at least advantaged. Unfortunately the blue-bloods of Boston tended to sneer at such children as “half-breeds”, thinking that their own inbred offspring were somehow of a “higher class”, when they may in fact have been deformed “cretins”, (not due to thyroid deficiency, but due to a deficiency of outside ideas.)

I would like to suggest it is not in the capitals, but out in the outskirts, that new ideas occur. It is among bumpkins you discover brilliance. Blessed are the poor. And the blessing (which may soon end) that befell New England was that, after all the horrors I have described, a peace fell upon the landscape, and the people knew centuries with war as a thing you only read about in the newspapers.

The hills where I live was apparently originally an Abenaki hunting ground without any camps that lasted long enough to leave archaeological evidence. (In other words, they were lands Puritans might see as “uninhabited. “) Though my Abenaki ancestors deemed these lands a homeland, bigwigs in Europe “owned” the lands, and as early as 1738 (and likely earlier) they wanted to develop what they “owned”. They drew nice lines on a map. Then they looked for people who wanted to invest in eighty-acre parcels. The only potential buyers were my Puritan ancestors.

I found a map dating from 1850 which shows the lines of the 80 acre plots you could make a real estate investment in, in 1738. They are absurd, for they utterly ignore the lay of the land. Most absurd is the arrow straight “road” left to right through the center of the map, as if New Hampshire was as flat as the flattest part of Kansas.

The above map shows the roads that existed in 1850. Nothing existed in 1738, and there were no buyers of the 80 acre lots. Why? I wondered, for my boyhood education showed this time as a long peace,  between 1713 and 1744. Further investigation showed this was actually a time when there was a war.

The Indian allies of the French, peeved that the French and English had made a treaty at the end of Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) that didn’t bother to include the Native American combatants, decided to fight without permission from Europe. In other words, there was no long peace. My boyhood education should have included, between Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) and King George’s War (1744-1748), a purely native and many-named war between 1722 and 1725. (I like the name “Father Rale’s War”).

In other words, the big-wig real estate sellers may have felt the land was theirs to sell, but the Puritan buyers knew the truth, and all the hazards involved, and had actual experience with the Abenaki who felt the land was their homeland. No one would invest, even after peace was made with the Indians to the north. Not that a few dare-devils didn’t settle north of the fronteir, but these tended to be men who had “gone native,” and were not members of any Puritan church.

Among other reasons to suspect the blandishments of real estate salesmen was the suspicion the apparent peace in Europe would vanish, and the French and Indians to the north would, as subjects of some European bigwigs, have to resume raiding. And exactly this did occur, when King George’s War erupted in 1744. It was only after that war concluded in 1748 that, at long last, a group of Puritans steeled their nerve, and marched north to “settle” the “uninhabited” lands.

A rather humorous incident then occurred. As far as I can tell, a couple of Abenaki hunters returned to their hunting grounds, and walked about amazed at the collection of 80-acre farms starting to be carved from the wilderness. (In actual fact there may have only been a rumor such Indians were seen.) But the entire town panicked and fled back to Massachusetts, except for a lone individual who stood his ground on top of a hill. Therefore the official date my town was established wasn’t until a year later, 1750, when the people dared return.

The above map, which shows the roads in 1850, barely hints at the original Puritan layout of the town. It was focused on the church, which was also the town-meeting house. (The original separation-of-church-and-state was when the original town meeting house was built across the street from the church in 1802.)

To get a hint of the original roads one needs to focus in on the church. All roads led to the church.

Of the five roads leading to the Church only two are currently paved, because the road leading down from the top and then off to the left is now a minor state highway. The road heading straight down is now a dirt road with some fancy houses on it, as it passes through uplands without any “wetlands” regulations. The two roads heading off to the right have been abandoned, because developing such lands would be too expensive due to federal and state regulations. However by 1800  those roads were developed, and passed through pastures ditched and drained, producing milk and beef and holding large farm families, as the original farm families prospered.

Seemingly it was only after the hard work was done that the bigwigs showed up,  to buy the best farms with money made elsewhere. They didn’t seem to share the idea of all farmers having an equal “enclosure” and being equal, but instead they entertained the European idea they might be a “Squire”, and be beneficent rulers of the ignorant. Some of these bigwigs got a shock when the American Revolution changed the world, and they were stripped of all they owned, tarred and feathered, and sent as homeless refugees to Canada, however the bigwigs in my town had the sense to see the writing on the wall, and claimed they were “patriots” and opposed “Tories”. However their true attitude is perhaps seen in the original pre-independence town graveyard, where their grave was a mound above all others.

I should note this particular bigwig is no longer laying with the original inhabitants of the town. So worldly was the family that, when a new and more extravagant graveyard was started, his body was exhumed and he moved up in the world. The irony is rich, for the family is now forgotten.

Not that the original settlers are remembered and honored as they should be. In some ways modern bigwigs disdain them as bad exploiters, who killed Native Americans and hung witches and so on and so forth.

In actual fact they were the last of the Puritans, and never killed an Indian or hung a witch. All they wanted to do was show the world how beautiful life could be if Christians heeded how they were  commanded to live, and lived their their life accordingly. When they died they lay down as they had sat in their church, with their pastor, who served them a half century, in front of them, with his wife beside him.

When they died they were already an anachronism, out of style, wearing three-cornered-hats and breeches. Few gave them credit for what they had endured.  The French were driven away, and so to were the English. They had borne the brunt of the suffering, but didn’t care much if they received none of the credit. They expected their reward in the future:

Atheists likely scoff and scorn a people who do not expect a reward here on earth, and who live their entire Puritan lives for a reward in heaven. And I’ll admit there is something seemingly mad about standing in a graveyard consisting of a preacher with his entire congregation, all facing east, from where the second-coming will supposedly come,  who died thinking they’d all arise together and celebrate (except perhaps for the bigwig who moved to a better graveyard.)

In some ways the Puritans seem like a cult, like people who drank the Koolaid. However they did not commit suicide and become the bloated bodies of followers of the communist Jim Jones, (from whom the expression “don’t drink the Koolaid” originates.) Rather they worked long and hard, successfully raised large numbers of children, never were rich, seldom were praised, died as laughed-at anachronisms, and changed the world.

Above I mentioned two roads, that led to the church in a map, that have been abandoned. During the past summer, because the Childcare I run emphasizes the outdoors, I used “the outdoors” as an excuse to take children on hikes down those two abandoned roads. They are basically twin stone-walls, through landscape no developer would touch with a ten foot pole. (I plan to describe the ways I found to keep the children interested in some other post.) They definitely were not interested in what I was interested in, which was how the Puritans could profit from a landscape modern man has abandoned.

Most amazing was the amount of stone the Puritans moved. For every after-work-hour we spend on the internet, they seemingly moved boulders, for the fun of it. This may explain why we are fat and they were not. We burn 1800 calories a day and they burned 3000 to 4000.

The chief source of power they desired was not oil or coal, but water. Not a brook went un-dammed, which irks modern environmentalists because salmon can’t swim upstream with dams in the way, but modern environmentalists don’t subsist on salmon, and Puritans had to subsist on what they themselves could create. As I wandered down the abandoned roads I came across all sorts of tumbled, ruined and abandoned structures of stone, and wondered what forgotten profit was involved.

But the chief profit of these forgotten people was not made of a tangible thing like stone. It is therefore unintelligible to cruder sorts of Atheists who cannot believe a thing is real unless it is physical. Instead the vanished Puritan’s “profit” was the non-physical idea which, most crudely stated, states that it is better to have a hundred people “enclosing” a hundred small farms, than it is to have a single Capitalist lording over a hundred workers on a single estate, or a single Communist official lording over a hundred workers on a single collective.

This idea, (the idea a small farmer’s “enclosure” matters), shook the world in Puritan times. The question is, can it shake the world again today?

I think it can. Not that we have to regress and copy Puritans. In actual fact the last of the Puritans, in my town in 1750, hardly resembled the original Pilgrims at all. They had been morphed.

The change began as the Pilgrims learned from Squanto, and went on from there, until New Englanders were not called “Puritans”, but “Yankee”. They were more Indian than European.  The very granite had changed what they were. They were not from overseas. When people said, “Yankee go home,” there was no place in Europe called Yankee-land for them to return to. Though Native Americans hate to admit it, the Yankee are a Native American tribe, and in some ways they were created by the meat-grinder Puritans went through. Even when Puritans forgot it was biblical to love your enemy, they learned from the Algonquin tribes and the Iroquois, even as the Algonquin and Iroquois fought each other.  Out of this shambles came the transformed Puritans, called Yankee.

In like manner certain modern powers are like Algonquin and Iroquois, and like French and English, each insisting they have some sort of power that makes their way the only way. Meanwhile a realer people will evolve beyond their ken.

And in like manner, just as sure as rose buds will make rose hips, all the fuss of big wigs (currently called “the elite”) will do little to further their selfish causes. Just as the English thought they won the French-and-Indian-War, only to discover they lost America, so too will current elite big-wigs discover their claims to fame results in their ignominy.

Why? Because bigwigs, whether in the 1600’s or in 2017, fail to see what really matters. In fact they tend to mock and ridicule what really matters. Instead, as movers and shakers, they stride forward in outrageous arrogance to create those debacles in history that make us most ashamed to be human. It is for this reason that those currently in Washington D.C. like to think of themselves as “the elite”, but are called “the swamp” by more ordinary and humble people.

Bigwigs like to think they see what really matters. They don’t. History proves this over and over again, with such astounding regularity one wonders over the blindness of those who fail to see.

What do they fail to see?

It is a basic goodness that makes the poor blessed. The economist, studying profit and loss and supply and demand, can never understand the zero a mother calls gain when her breast gives her infant milk. In like manner, a person utterly engrossed in what Hollywood calls “fame” or what Washington D.C. calls “reelection” can never understand Jesus Christ. However my Puritan ancestors, for all their failings, at least were making the effort to understand Jesus Christ. And look what happened. Their children became a World Power.

What is power? Currently a fellow in North Korea is embarrassing the powerful by making a parody of their antics, with nuclear weapons. If this North Korean unleashes his power on the west coast of the USA the Hollywood “elite” will swiftly understand all their “fame” is not worth a hill of beans. The economy of the entire USA may crumble in the aftermath. But will all this matter all that much to the poor? If you have nothing to begin with, you have nothing to lose.

I tend to suspect that those who arise as mortal saviors of our sad and pathetic civilization will be those who have nothing to lose. (Not that an Almighty Savior wouldn’t be better than mortal ones.)

And the only proof I have to offer is the history of the New England Puritans, an obscure people far from the centers of power and policy, who wound up shaking the world even as they became extinct.


22 thoughts on “LOCAL VIEW: The Last of the Puritans

  1. Caleb,
    that was a really interesting post. Brought many things to mind. My paternal grandmother was from the Hebrides, English wasn’t her native tongue and followed the Free Church of Scotland. Sundays were a day of rest. We rarely visited her on Sunday, my father had gone native. The Christian v Christian conflict (not too strong a word) is still a problem in Scotland (as well as Northern Ireland.) Whisky Galore by Compton MacKenzie covers the religious make up of the Outer Hebrides in a story based on the war time ship wrecking of the SS Politician. As she’d been widowed before I was born I can’t remember her wearing anything other than black clothes with a white blouse.

    You’re a poetry lover so you you may like “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith which is a social commentary written in the late 18th century at the time of enclosures and rural depopulation.

    I’d never heard of King George’s War so had to look it up It is known as the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) in history books in the UK. Which covered the time of the 45 Jacobite Rebellion. Many Scottish Jacobites went to The Americas after swearing an oath of allegiance to the Hanoverian monarchy. So when the American Revolution began they fought on the British side and lost again. Flora MacDonald, famous for aiding the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, was amongst the number and came back to Scotland from North Carolina after another traumatic period for her and her husband. Many Jacobites had similar experiences. Flora MacDonald’s story is worth looking up, quite a lady.

    I’m going to have read it again as the first reading triggered off other things in my head!

  2. In 1970, to get me away from bad hippie influences, I was sent to a boarding school called Dunrobin in the northeast corner of Scotland. The masters felt I was likely too old to be “shaped” (I was seventeen) but I think they saved my life simply by giving me a place away from drugs and by working the heck out of me. It was a bit like boot camp. It also opened my eyes to how different Britain was from America.

    One thing I quickly learned was that it was unwise to crack jokes about the Queen. I never quite got popped in the nose for my rude jokes, but the atmosphere would chill like Antarctica, and no one would laugh, even though I was among rude and irreverent schoolboys who had a Monty-Python-attitude towards everything else. Patriotism was focused around loyalty towards a monarch, which was definitely not the case in the USA, (where we are now in an uproar about what it actually is we are loyal to, but back then we were loyal “to the flag” and “to the republic, for which it stands.”)

    In 1970 things were different down in the nearby town of Golspie. (That school had “activities” for a half-day, once a week, I suppose to give us some experience with the “common folk”, and I worked in a gas station.) (We boys saw it as an opportunity to meet girls and to smoke illicit cigarettes and even, greatly daring, to sneak a pint of excellent beer at a local pub.)

    It was in town I first heard of the “Clearances”, and the resentment which still existed among the people.

    During a cross-country run when I ran with the bad boys, (who always came in last place because they tended to stray from the route), (again girls and cigarettes might be involved), I bungled into the stone ruins of a village, and was informed it had been “burnt out” during the Clearances.

    I found this appalling, and sided with the Scot crofters immediately and instinctively, likely due to my American upbringing, but I also found it very interesting to ask about the Clearances up at the school. The Duke of Sutherland was the richest man in Europe at the time of the Clearances, and what he thought he was doing was “improving the standard of living” with a bit of social engineering. Some of the arguments were very persuasive, and I was still young and without fixed opinions. So I used to go back and forth, between the school in a rich man’s castle and a town on the coast, hearing both sides.

    Here’s some great lore: The Highlanders were among the best fighters in the British Army, but after the Clearances few would enlist for the Crimean War. The Duke of Sutherland was embarrassed, and offered the people of Goslpe a golden guinea rather than customary silver shilling for enlisting. Only the town idiot stepped forward. The Duke was furious and demanded an answer. No one dared speak, until a very old man stepped forward and said something along the lines of, “You threw us off our land to raise sheep. Now let those sheep fight for you.”

    The United States and Canada gained a lot of tough people due to the enclosures and clearances in England, Scotland and Ireland.

  3. One thing notable about the Clearances as they went on down in England, was how about a third of the Commons were saved where the people were united. Where, I guess, there was less stratification. In the Highlands, the crimes were hidden by isolation. But there was still a backlash, out of which slowly grew a full democracy via the House of Commons. People forget at their peril that it was the scientific/agricultural/industrial revolutions which made this possible. By massively-increasing the supply of affordable goods and services,and incomes to buy them. The whole Victorian era was occupied by this process. Nations without a basic belief in equality still have not made it.

    • If you happen to know of a good read, describing the history of how “a third of the commons was saved”, I’d love to study it.

      I think it might be applicable to the current situation in Africa, where “aid” often only makes the dictators stronger and the common man weaker.

      It always has rubbed me the wrong way that Zimbabwe, under minority rule, was the breadbasket of Africa, but under so-called “majority rule”, has been such an absolute and complete failure, with hunger rampant. It sends the wrong signal: “Minority rule is better.” (Of course in actual fact Zimbabwe has been ruled by a despot who adds insult to injury by refusing to die of old age,).

      • Can the same thing be said about South Africa? The wonderful story of men like Nelson Mandela who fought so hard for majority rule has not worked out well for them either. Or so I hear.

        I wish that story had a happier ending for those who were “liberated”. Liberation seems to find a way to devolve into corrupt 3rd world despotism. The bottom line is that the people get screwed.

      • Maybe that is the lesson the world has learned since the postwar collapse of the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese Empires: Freedom is not as easy as it seems.

        What troubles me is the sense I get at times that certain people in power actually support dictators because they don’t really want the common man free.

  4. I discovered an interesting side-story concerning that old Laurel and Hardy silent film, which I used to point out how stupid the human propensity towards revenge is.

    The producer of the film, Hal Roach, had made a deal with the owner of a bungalow near the studio. He would repay for all damage done to the house, which gets badly damaged in the film. Just as they were finishing the filming a husband and wife drove up with their two children, and the wife got out of the car, looked at the house, and fainted. They had gotten the wrong bungalow.

    • Glad you liked the long essay.

      As a defiant boy I joined others in throwing rocks at that statue of the Duke, atop that rounded peak, inland from Golspie.

      When you got up there, the statue turned out to be enormous. Even with a strong baseball arm, I could barely clang rocks off the statue’s shins. In white paint in large letters on the towering pedestal was splashed the graffiti, (back then), “Remember The Clearances.”

  5. “The economist can never understand…the zero a mother calls gain when her breast gives her infant milk.”

    On the contrary, economists understand it perfectly. It is a voluntary exchange and therefore both parties gain or they would not do it. The mother gives milk which it costs her little to produce* and which is of no value to her directly and receives love which she does value. The infant gives love which it costs him nothing to produce and receives sustenance and reassurance. Nothing could be simpler to understand. The economist simply accepts the fact that this is what the two parties seem to “want.” It is the province of psychology or biology (or of a spiritual system if you want to work it that way) to explain WHY these two animals** do it instinctively.

    *It costs nothing in our well-fed communities. In the wild, the diversion of energy might cost her life.

    **Only mammal brains seem to be wired to produce the emotions of “caring.”

    “Atheists likely scoff and scorn…” “The economist can never understand…”

    These are insulting generalizations.

    • Sorry, but offence was intended to a certain degree. I did pass my English A level in Economics, and was an atheist back then, so I am mostly offending my own former self. It takes one to know one.

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