One of the most important consequences of the upheaval in the writing of American history that has taken place over the past generation has been the new attention paid to the Indians. A century ago historians of early America scarcely acknowledged their existence. In the opening paragraphs of his essay in the first issue of the American Historical Review in 1895 Frederick Jackson Turner set forth his entire frontier thesis for understanding the origins of the United States, and the Indians had no place in it. For Turner, the New World that the Europeans came to in the seventeenth century was “virgin soil,” an “unexploited wilderness” out of which American distinctiveness was born. Indeed, wrote Turner, it was “the fact of unoccupied territory in America that sets the evolution of American and European institutions in contrast.”1
No historian of early America would write that way anymore. Through the efforts of a squadron of scholars, the Indians have now made their presence felt in early America. During the past several decades works dealing with the native peoples of North America in the colonial period have multiplied dramatically. Since the 1960s the William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in the field of early American history, has increased its publication of articles on Indians five-fold. Some of the best historians in the United States have been turning to the indigenous peoples as a subject of research, and books on Indians in early America have begun winning prestigious prizes.
Some of this recent interest in the native peoples of America has grown out of the natural tendencies of young scholars in the historical profession to look for new and fresh topics for research. Others, like Daniel Richter, see in the history of the Indians an excellent means of challenging “people to stand outside their comfortable… assumptions and to learn unpleasant lessons from their study of the past.” A historian of this sort sees himself or herself as “a critic of culture” whose principal task is “to illuminate conditions of the present by casting a harsh light on previous experience,” something not all that hard to do in the case of the Indians.2
But perhaps most important in explaining this new interest in the Indians of early America have been the changing perspectives that many recent historians have brought to bear on America’s colonial past. Early American historians today are not as interested in explaining the origins of America’s peculiar national character as they used to be. Many of them have lost confidence in the traditional belief that the United States has a collective identity with common origins and have begun to look at early American history from vantage points beyond the nation, seeing in America’s colonial past something other than the beginnings of the United States. Louis Hartz a generation ago saw what such a changed perspective might mean for Americans’ conception of the Indian. The neglect of the Indian, he wrote, derived solely from the “interior perspectives” of historians like Frederick Jackson Turner. Since it was the fate of America as a nation “to destroy and exclude the Indian, life inside it has had a dwindling contact with him. How could he then be perceived? How could he be appreciated as a problem comparable to the rise of the ‘common man’ or the emergence of the trusts?” But of course, said Hartz, once American historians get outside the narrow confines of the nation, “the very fact that the Indian was thus eliminated…becomes a matter of very great importance.”3
Most historians today deny that “the Indian” was ever in fact eliminated, but all would agree that the Indian’s story has not been as well integrated into American history as it might have been. Until recently the Indians—when written about at all—have been treated as a side issue in frontier history or given only walk-on roles in the larger drama of American history. Rarely have they been seen as central participants in American history, even when, as in the seventeenth century, they dominated much of the landscape. Although some Indian scholars, like Calvin Martin, doubt that Western-style historical methods can ever accurately convey the Indians’ past, many other Indian historians, like James Merrell, believe that a blending of ethnology and history can do the job. For the writing of Indian history, says Merrell, historians need only “borrow freely from other disciplines and examine all sorts of evidence to give voice to the historically silent.”4 But not just to the historically silent. It turns out that the voices of the historically loquacious, like the Puritans of early New England, can benefit as well from freewheeling, multidisciplinary scholarship. Jill Lepore’s fascinating book on King Philip’s War is a product of just such imaginative, wide-ranging scholarship.
Although King Philip’s War is the most bloody and destructive war in the history of all the American people, it began simply enough. In late January 1675, John Sassamon, a Christian Indian who had recently warned the colonists in New England of a possible Indian uprising, died in mysterious circumstances. Three Wampanoags close to Philip, the Wampanoag ruler, were tried for the murder of Sassamon and found guilty, and in June 1675 they were executed by Plymouth Colony. The executions touched off Indian attacks on English settlements that quickly escalated into a ferocious conflict that spread throughout large parts of southern New England. By the time Philip was shot fourteen months later, in August 1676, thousands of people had been killed, both English and natives.
Indeed, the war inflicted greater casualties in proportion to population than any other war in American history. By August 1676 twenty-five English towns, more than half of all the English communities in New England, had been destroyed, and the line of English settlement had been pushed back almost to the coast. A half-century of English efforts to colonize New England was nearly wiped out. The Indian losses were even greater. Not only were thousands killed by war, starvation, or disease, but thousands more were sold to the West Indies as slaves. Even Christian Indians who had been loyal to the English were not spared. Most were removed from their “praying towns” and imprisoned on barren islands, where many died of cold and hunger. King Philip’s War, concludes Lepore, “proved to be not only the most fatal war in all of American history but also one of the most merciless.”
Lepore’s book is not a conventional narrative history of the war.5 To be sure, it contains a four-page chronology of the war and here and there dwells on particular incidents during it. But the book neither tells the story of the war nor tries to analyze systematically its causes and consequences. Instead, Lepore, who is assistant professor of history at Boston University, has written a meditation on the war, a series of reflections and speculations on what the war meant not only for the English and the Indians of the seventeenth century but also for their heirs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If there can be such a thing as postmodern history, perhaps this book can be best understood as an example of it. In the new postmodern world historians do not recount events and tell stories. Instead, they muse and ponder over the stories and accounts of events that others have told, or, as in the case of the Indians, have not told. In Lepore’s history the writing about the war became as important as the waging of it. As she says, “War is a contest of words as much as it is a contest of wounds.”
In this sort of postmodern history, culture becomes everything and political, social, and economic forces do not count for much. Lepore never really explains why the Indians rose up in rebellion when they did. She tells us nothing about the development of the Puritans’ economy in the several decades of settlement preceding the war and never mentions the extent to which the English were exploiting Indian labor, in many cases bonded Indian labor. Nor does she emphasize the fact that this was not a war of whites against Indians but one in which whites and their Indian allies fought Indians; indeed, on a per capita basis more Indian than Puritan soldiers fought to put down Philip’s rebellion.
Instead of composing a traditional historical account of the war, Lepore reflects on the ways people wrote about it. Hers is a history sparing of events but rich in imagination, in moral ruminations about the meaning and justice of war, and in literary and cultural theory. Indeed, rarely has a work of history stressed the dependence of reality on texts as much as this one. Lepore is less interested in happenings than in their symbolic meaning. Metaphors and images overwhelm simple statements of fact, and nothing is as it may seem on the surface. Because Lepore believes that King Philip’s War was very much about language and suggests many sorts of allegories, in some sense, she says, it has never ended. “In other times, in other places, its painful wounds would be reopened, its vicious words spoken again.”
Lepore spends a half-dozen pages in the preface explaining why she calls the conflict “King Philip’s War.” This is no easy matter, since that title is, as scholars say these days, much “contested.” Some think it should be called a “Puritan Conquest.” Others want to call it “Metacom’s Rebellion,” which more accurately refers to Philip by his Algonquian name and properly celebrates Indian resistance. Besides, Philip was not a king but a sachem. “War” is the most disputed of the terms. Even some of the Eng-lish colonists, as the Puritan historian William Hubbard declared in 1677, thought that the “Massacres” and “barbarous inhumane Outrages” of the conflict were too base and ignoble to deserve “the Name of a War.” As a recognition of “the importance of language” in understanding war, Lepore has used Hubbard’s phrase as a title for her “own set of words about war.”
Lepore divides her book into four parts—“Language,” “War,” “Bondage,” and “Memory”—which define her themes of analysis and meditation.
Part One examines why so many colonists wrote so much about King Philip’s War while New England’s Algonquians wrote so little…. Part Two traces how boundaries were drawn during King Philip’s War, both on the physical landscape and on the landscapes of the human body, and how the war’s cruelties were explained and justified by both sides, especially in religious terms. Part Three contrasts New Englanders’ differing experiences of bondage during the war: captivity, confinement, slavery. Last, Part Four analyzes how subsequent generations of Americans have remembered King Philip’s War, most notably through Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags, a wildly popular play that was performed in theaters across America in the 1830s and 1840s.
Lepore begins her book with the Reverend William Hubbard’s graphic account of a captured Narragansett Indian being tortured by some Mohegan Indians, who were allies of the English in the war. As Englishmen watched, the Mohegans formed a great circle around the Narragansett and then slowly cut off each of his fingers and toes, forcing him all the while to sing and dance, and then they broke his legs, before finally knocking out his brains. Lepore devotes much space to this gruesome scene, analyzing its implications. She correctly points out that the English prided themselves on their gentleness in contrast to the cruel Spanish and that some of them worried constantly about degenerating into savagery. Nevertheless, without any evidence from Hubbard’s account—indeed, Hubbard specifically says that the English were “not delighted in blood”—Lepore somehow convinces herself that the English spectators found the suffering of the tortured Indian “sublimely satisfying.”
It is entirely plausible, of course, that some of the English enjoyed watching the Indian being tortured; the Narragansett after all had bragged of killing nineteen of their countrymen. Moreover, the incident occurred a year after the war had begun, and the English had become brutalized by the ferocity of the fighting. Certainly, some of them committed more terrible atrocities than those committed by the Indians. Yet, as brutal and cruel as the English were during the war, they, or at least their ministers and leaders, did not, in any source we have, condone torture of the sort Lepore describes. Indeed, that was the point Hubbard was trying to make in describing the scene.
Yet Lepore has decided that since “watching is the chief sport” of torture, the English must have enjoyed it. Only if the English enjoyed the spectacle would they have put in jeopardy their identity as “civilized” men. And since the Puritans’ worrying about losing their Englishness is a major theme of her book, it is important for her argument that the English relish such “savage” pleasures. She does concede that the English expressed disgust with the torturing, “but,” she says,
the other side of disgust is desire, and, despite their protestations to the contrary, clearly the English feel that, too…. While they may find it painful to watch as a young man has his fingers sawed off, they also find it pleasurable.
As evidence for this unverifiable conclusion, Lepore cites not seventeenth-century materials but the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, who believes that disgust and “bourgeois desire” are related. Indeed, in order to analyze the war she draws on literary critics like Greenblatt and Elaine Scarry for many of the theories that she uses in place of traditional sorts of historical evidence.
Beginning a chapter with the detailed description of an exemplary anecdote and then imaginatively teasing out its cultural implications is Lepore’s usual technique. Her writing is always clear—mercifully she avoids the jargon of postmodernist criticism—and many of her ruminations are fascinating and informative. Sometimes, however, she seems to carry on her musing too long. For example, on the question of whether or not John Sassamon, whose death touched off the war, was actually murdered, Lepore begins with the process by which historians usually reach conclusions. She examines the surviving evidence and weighs alternatives, finally making judgments about what happened. But after proceeding in a straightforward fashion through the case, Lepore decides that we cannot tell who killed Sassamon. Thus, she writes, we ought to forget about the murderer and instead investigate the motive. But then she finds that the exact motive is unclear and in fact “may not matter.” What really killed him was his status as a Christian convert and cultural mediator between the Indians and the English. “In a sense, literacy killed John Sassamon.” She then spends the rest of the chapter explaining what she means by this literary explanation.
In doing so Lepore certainly has many texts to interpret. Within eight years after the war began in 1675, the Puritans had written twenty-one different accounts of the conflict, many published in more than one edition. But since the Indians had no written language, they wrote nothing; and this is a problem. If the war was very much a war of words, Lepore asks, “can it ever be a fair fight when only one side has access to those perfect instruments of empire, pens, paper, and printing presses?” In place of history, however, the Indians had myths, and these oral myths, Lepore suggests, may be just as good and reliable as the constructed histories of the Europeans in preserving the past. Of course, some Indians did learn to read and write, but by acquiring literacy they lost their native language and culture and thus their Indianness. So one of the consequences of literacy, muses Lepore, may be “the death of those who acquire it.” Therefore, it makes little sense, Lepore writes, to explain the native culture’s “lack of written history by simply pointing to its attachment to mythical thinking.” With death by literacy staring them in the face, the Indians had good reason not to write.
Lepore shows some sympathy for the extraordinary efforts of the Puritan minister John Eliot to translate the Bible and other documents into a written version of Massachusett, the oral Algonquian language, in order to convert the Indians to Christianity. Eliot even frantically tried to convert Philip himself. But Sassamon was his most important convert, and Sassamon’s literacy, which gave him the ability to move between both cultures, was his undoing. One rumor had Sassamon murdered by Philip because he wrote out Philip’s will and distorted the sachem’s intentions. “While it may or may not be true,” Lepore writes, the story still suggests that the Wampanoags regarded Sassamon’s literacy as mysterious and dangerous. “His life, and his death, serve as a metaphor for tensions that would prove fatal to the thousands of literate and nonliterate Indians who died in King Philip’s War.” If Sassamon had lived, Lepore speculates, he might have written his own history of the war. “On the other hand, he might not have.” Maybe he “did in fact lack the kind of ‘historical sensibility’ anthropologists have commonly attributed to literate peoples.” “Frustratingly,” she concludes, “we will never know what kind of a writer John Sassamon might have been.”
Thus Lepore’s analyses go, moving back and forth, on the one hand, then on the other, debating with herself, suggesting alternatives and then dismissing them, pondering, speculating, and ruminating over what can or cannot be known and what cultural theory tells us. The conclusions she reaches—often that the evidence is too scanty to know anything for sure—are in many cases sound and balanced. But she is not interested in telling us her conclusions; she wants us to see, in all its uncertainty and indeterminacy, the process of how she arrives at them. So it is not just war that is a contest of words; it is history-writing too.
Although Lepore starts by emphasizing just how much some of the English wrote about the war, she later says she is more impressed with the fact that most of them wrote very little. Apparently most felt incapable of describing the devastation of the conflict; their pain could not be expressed in language, although Lepore herself has no trouble in this respect. She finds a number of words in the English writings—“paper and books and pens and ink”—that were sometimes used metaphorically and acted “as measurements of pain and evil.” The image of “blood as ink” was crucial. But ultimately only Elaine Scarry’s theory about what pain does to language—“either it remains inarticulate or else the moment it first becomes articulate it silences all else”—could help Lepore resolve “the incongruency between how much some colonists wrote about King Philip’s War and how little others wrote.”
The “real silence” was of course that of the Algonquians, who had no written language. Lepore imagines that the colonists must have been worried about what the Indians might say about the war. “Even while the English lamented their helplessness against Indian attacks,” she suggests, “they took comfort in the knowledge that they controlled the pens and printing presses…. If war is a contest of both injuries and interpretation, the English made sure that they won the latter, even when the former was not yet assured.”
When Lepore gets to the actual cruelty and bloodshed of the war, she writes more and more excitedly about metaphorical speech and actions by both settlers and Indians and how literary theory can interpret them. She begins a chapter, as usual, with an exemplary anecdote, in this case with a description of a bloody Indian attack on the household of Thomas Wakely in which Wakely’s house was burned, most of his family killed, and the rest taken captive. She suggests that Wakely might have saved his family if he had been willing to leave his house. But he was “too attached to his property to abandon it.” It seems he had too much of that typical bourgeois attachment to possessions to know what was good for him.
In fact, says Lepore, the English tended to measure their losses by counting not just people but also property and possessions. Although Lepore concedes that the English had plenty of good practical reasons to count their cattle, crops, and houses among their losses, she suggests that the real reason was their fear of losing their cultural identity—their possessions presumably being what ultimately separated them from the Indians. But from the evidence Lepore presents, it was the Indians who should have been frightened of losing their identity. Although Lepore believes that the “Algonquians had always celebrated their detachment from goods and property,” they were certainly interested in acquiring at every opportunity English blankets, clothing, hardware, and furniture.
Lepore makes a great deal of what she calls “the metaphor of nakedness.” The Indians stripped the bodies of the English naked, and although this kind of pillaging of bodies was common in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War, Lepore nevertheless sees it as the stripping away of the marks of civilization and turning the English into barbarians. So when neighbors described a bloodied, severely wounded Englishwoman who had been stripped naked and partially scalped as “a frightfull spectacle,” they were responding not just to the woman’s physical appearance but also to the fact that “she had been shorn of all emblems of piety, civility, and Englishness.”
But these mutilated English bodies were not just bodies; modern cultural theory helps us see that they stood for English property as well. “Bodies were defined in relationship to houses, but houses, too, were metaphorical bodies.” Thus, Lepore contends, nearly any attack on a house “could be understood metaphorically as an assault on the human body.” The English who stood in doorways or ventured out of their houses during an Indian attack were often easy victims. “Open doors, then, could be like wounds on the body, the people spilling out like blood.”
Apparently realizing that she may have carried her metaphor of bodies and houses too far, Lepore admits that houses did offer “very real protection” during Indian attacks. So Thomas Wakely may not have been so foolish and so bourgeois in staying in his house. Yet in the end Lepore cannot give up her notion that it was Wakely’s cultural identity that kept him from fleeing. “Separated from his property, Thomas Wakely would no longer be Thomas Wakely, farmer, no longer Thomas Wakely, Englishman.”
Englishmen may have understood the symbolic importance of their property, but Lepore believes they were not adept at reading the symbolic language of the Indians. She especially indicts the Puritans for being “unwilling or unable” to place Indian cruelties “within the broader context of Algonquian culture.” They should have known better, but then they did not have, as Lepore does, the anthropologist Mary Douglas to help them to understand the ritualistic character of the Indians’ atrocities.
“Algonquian attacks and Algonquian tortures were not random or arbitrary,” writes Lepore. “On the contrary, they were deliberate and deeply symbolic.” She gives as one example the burying of English captives alive accompanied by the taunt: “You English since you came into this Countrey have grown exceedingly above the Ground, let us now see how you will grow when Planted into the Ground.” If the Puritans had possessed any sort of cultural sensitivity, says Lepore, they would have seen examples of such atrocities “as partial explanations for what had provoked the Indians to wage war.” But the Puritans, obsessed with their own sins, ignored the symbolic meaning of these practices. “Busily interpreting Indian actions as messages from God, New England’s colonists,” says Lepore, “utterly failed to see Indian actions as messages from Indians, or even simply to pay attention to Indian explanations for the war.”
When Lepore comes to indict the English for selling captured Indians into slavery in the Caribbean, she allows the modern sensibilities that infuse her study to distort her interpretation. Selling prisoners of war into slavery or servitude was a common practice in the seventeenth century. There were no POW camps, and armies often dealt with masses of prisoners by recruiting them into their own ranks or selling them into bondage. Although the Puritans’ actions were not all that unusual, and, indeed, were seen by them as merciful, Lepore can see them only in modern racial terms. Since “Indians could be enslaved, while English people could not,” the enslavement of the Indians
must be considered as a critical step in the evolution toward an increasingly racialized ideology of the differences between Europeans and Indians…. Only because Indians are somehow less than human can they be fully enslaved in a way Europeans never could.
She never mentions the fact that during the English Civil War the English likewise sold Scottish and Irish prisoners into bondage in the West Indies. It was a cruel and brutal age, and human life was a great deal cheaper than it is for us today.
Even her account of the Puritans’ frightened confinement of the Christian Indians to isolated islands seems lacking in perspective. It is worth recalling that supposedly enlightened twentieth-century Americans interned American citizens of Japanese ancestry in World War II at a time when the threat to survival was no way near comparable to that facing the English colonists in 1675 and 1676. One senses that Lepore wants to be fair in her judgments of Puritan and Indian behavior, but understandably her sympathies lie with the Indians. Both sides, for example, beheaded their victims and displayed the heads on poles (a common practice in European wars as well); but “unlike its English counterpart, the Algonquian practice of decapitation had religious significance,” which presumably made it more defensible.
What in the end seems extraordinary about the Puritans’ behavior is not their harsh treatment of the Indians but their continual agonizing and worrying about that treatment. Would that the Puritans in England had agonized as much about their savage treatment of the Irish during the Civil War. In 1644 Parliament passed an ordinance condemning to death all Irish rebels captured in England. As one historian has recently pointed out, “Throughout King Philip’s War, the Puritans would never reach that point with the Indians.”6 Lepore, who has very little to say about Puritan behavior in England, does not make such a comparison. But of course, if we look back and consider what happened to the Indians in America, no amount of emphasis on the historical context, given our present sensibilities, can ever morally justify the Puritans’ behavior.
In her final section, on memory, Lepore describes the different ways Americans subsequently recalled the war. Although by the end of the eighteenth century many white Americans had assumed that the Indians in the Northeast had vanished, they had not. “Instead they became increasingly integrated into the wider colonial community,” many of them intermarrying with free blacks and forming a “new Indian identity.” Yet white Americans’ sense that the Indians were no longer present in the Northeast gave them the security to romanticize the native peoples. They were free even to adopt some attributes of Indianness in order, Lepore writes, to assert their cultural independence from the decadence of the Old World. In the past white Americans had seen the Indians as barbarians threatening their institutions; now they saw them as natural beings free from the artificial restraints and refinements of polished life. By the early nineteenth century Americans like Washington Irving were actually celebrating King Philip as a liberty-loving revolutionary. It was the famous actor Edwin Forrest in his play Metamora, however, who was most responsible for turning Philip into a popular American hero. In the 1830s and 1840s his portrayal of the “Last of the Wampanoags” dominated the American theater. For twenty-five years only two seasons in Philadelphia were without a performance of Metamora.
As popular as Forrest’s performances were, however, when he played before people who had a vested interest in removing the Indians, as was the case in Georgia in 1831, he was not at all well received. Not that Metamora was meant to be an indictment of the removal of the Indians during the 1830s to lands west of the Mississippi. Lepore argues that even those New Englanders who opposed Indian removal and applauded Forrest’s play only did so because the Indians seemed to be no longer part of their lives and no longer mattered to them. Thus “Metamora served as an important vehicle by which white Americans came to understand Indian removal as inevitable, and Philip, newly heroized, became a central figure in the search for an American identity and an American past.”
In time the New England native peoples themselves, some of whom had earlier passed as either white or black, began “to reassert their tribal identities, and increasingly, to think of themselves as ‘Indians,”‘ a process that has continued up to the present. In recent decades the various New England tribes have pressed for federal recognition and for the return of lost tribal lands; the success of some of them has led to their running gambling casinos and accumulating considerable wealth. At the same time many of the Indians have continued the dispute over the meaning of King Philip’s War that began over three centuries ago. In 1993, in a commemoration of the Great Swamp fight in which hundreds of Indians were massacred, a Narragansett tribal historian declared, “We are Narragansetts first, and we are Americans when it is convenient.” Lepore sees this statement as an attempt by the present-day Indians of New England “to preserve their Indianness as fiercely as seventeenth-century colonists once struggled to preserve their Englishness.” American history, in this perspective, turns out to be one long story of different peoples struggling to identify themselves.
April 9, 1998
Frederick Jackson Turner, “Western State-Making in the Revolutionary Era,” American Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (October 1895), pp. 70-72. ↩
Daniel Richter, “Whose Indian History?” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. 50, No. 2 (April 1993), p. 388. ↩
Louis Hartz, The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia (Harcourt, Brace, 1964), p. 94. ↩
James H. Merrell, “Some Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. 46, No. 1 (January 1989), p. 114. ↩
The best traditional history of the war is forty years old: Douglas Edward Leach, Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip’s War (Macmillan, 1958). ↩
James Drake, “Restraining Atrocity: The Conduct of King Philip’s War,” New England Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 1 (March 1997), p. 50. ↩