1675: Little John

1 comment September 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1675, an Indian (tribe uncertain insofar as I can ascertain) named Little John (or John Littlejohn) was publicly executed on Boston Common for murder.

Though the attributed crime was of a venial variety, the situation was conditioned by a dirty war of ethnic cleansing that had only just that summer eruptedKing Philip’s War.

Strained by a series of Native American raids, Little John — lying in jail for murder — apparently became a popular target of Bostonian fury, which was a very bad place to be. Just a few days before this execution, two accredited Indian envoys in the city had been hailed as King Philip’s warriors by two whites, and upon that “recognition” put to death.

Little John’s near-lyching and actual-hanging (“in a Manner so revolting that were the truth alone related the readers’ belief might be confounded”) comes to us from Narratives of The Indian Wars 1675-1699 (also available from Google books):

about the 10th of September, at nine O’clock at Night, there gathered together about forty Men (some of Note) and came to the House of Captain James Oliver; two or three of them went into the Entry to desire to speak with him, which was to desire him to be their Leader, and they should joyn together and go break open the Prison, and take one Indian out thence and Hang him: Captain Oliver hearing their Request, took his Cane and cudgelled them stoutly, and so for that Time dismist the Company; which had he but in the least countenanced, it might have been accompanied with ill Events in the End. Immediately Captain Oliver went and acquainted Mr. Ting his Neighbor, (a Justice of Peace) and they both went next Morning and acquainted the Governour, who thank’d Captain Oliver for what he had done last Night, but this rested not here; For the Commonalty were so enraged …

an Order was issued out for the Execution of that one (notorious above the rest) Indian, and accordingly he was led by a Rope about his Neck to the Gallows; when he came there, the Executioners (for there were many) flung one End over the Post, and so hoised him up like a Dog, three or four Times, he being yet half alive and half dead; then came an Indian, a Friend of his, and with his Knife made a Hole in his Breast to his Heart, and sucked out his Heart-Blood: Being asked his Reason therefore, his Answer, Umh, Umh nu, Me stronger as I was before, me be so strong as me and he too, he be ver strong Man fore he die.

Thus with the Dog-like Death (good enough) of one poor Heathen, was the Peoples Rage laid in some Measure, but in a short Time it began to work (not without Cause enough).

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1675: The murderers of John Sassamon, precipitating King Philip’s War

1 comment June 8th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1675, Puritan colonists’ hanging of three Wampanoag Indians helped trigger a brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, King Philip’s War.

The condemned men’s victim, Wassausmon — known by his Christian, Anglicized name of John Sassamon — was a converted Massachuseuk, briefly a Harvard attendee (1653)*, and eventually a translator for several tribes when dealing with the early settlers. Sassamon fought on the colonists’ side during the Pequot War, which has graced these pages before, and was generally seen as very sympathetic to the colonial cause, at one point becoming a schoolmaster at the inception of the towns of Natick and Ponkapoag.

After his work as a translator, Sassamon returned to the Puritan fold to become a minister in the Plymouth Colony.

Because of his high position in both the white and native worlds, though, he drew some resentment from both sides. It was Sassamon’s sense of loyalty to both sides of the growing tension between the natives and colonists that led to his demise.

King Philip (natively known as Metacomet) became head (Sachem) of the Wampanoag Confederacy in 1662 after his brother’s death.

Though initially trade-friendly with the burgeoning colonies to the north and east, the Wampanoag were also feeling the squeeze from the Iroqouis Confederation gaining power to the west. In 1671, the colonies presented the Wampanoag with an ultimatum: give up their arms and submit to English law, or be forced out.

The colonists had tried this tactic before with the Pequot (hence the Pequot War), Narragansett, and other native tribes with great success. As expected, Philip blinked, and the English moved in.

But the Sachem was predictably unhappy with the relationship. Three years later, he had assembled a band of warriors and was ready to, er, renegotiate.

Sassamon got wind of Philip’s planned attack on Plymouth Colony and warned its governor Josiah Winslow. Two months later, Sassamon was fished out from under the ice of Assawompset Pond.

With one witness claiming that a trio of King Philip’s men had knocked off the translator and dumped the corpse, the Puritans became convinced that Philip was already getting involved in their affairs.

In June 1675, four months after Sassamon’s body was found, a mixed jury of Indians and colonists convicted three Pokanoket Indians of murdering Sassamon, and on June 8, they were hanged.**

The executions helped bring tensions to the breaking point, and Philip decided it was his time.

On June 18, he launched an attack on homesteads in Swansea, and the war was on. The colonists struck back, laying siege to Mount Hope with the thought of gutting the insurgency by capturing its leader. That move failed, and King Philip escaped to recruit more tribes to his cause. Eventually, the forces included five major native tribes fighting colonists and two other major tribes.

Things got ugly fast: the conflict would become one of North America’s bloodiest colonial wars, and touch everyone who lived in the region. In September, the New England Confederation officially declared war on the Native Americans of the area.

After suffering months of casualties, the colonists finally gained a foothold in the conflict in December. By spring, King Philip’s War was in full swing, with atrocities happening on both sides. But the native forces were being worn down, and the colonists began clawing back. Despite rampant destruction of towns across the colonies (including complete abandonment of a dozen or more), the colonists had fortresses to retreat to and boats to resupply them; the natives needed to trade with the colonists to get their arms. The situation was unsustainable, and when Canadian supply lines fell through, King Philip’s adventure was over.

Persistent enemies of many of the raiding tribes, the Plymouth-allied Mohegans took the offensive and broke up Philip’s warrior bands, scattering them across the Northeast. By the following summer, the Narragansett were defeated and dispersed, and the colonists were granting amnesty to natives who surrendered and could document non-participation. (Others were not so lucky.) In July, King Philip himself was isolated and on the run, taking refuge in Mount Hope. It was there that John Alderman, a Native American, shot him on August 12, 1676.


1857 Harpers magazine engraving of the attack on King Philip’s last redoubt.

Philip’s body was mutilated: he was quartered and beheaded, and his head was displayed in Plymouth Colony Fort for years to come.

After the war, Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive by Philip’s men, wrote a memoir about her experience. Philip’s escapades were also later made into a play.

* Harvard, founded in 1636, started its “Indian Harvard” in 1655 which saw a total of five students: Caleb Cheeshahteamuck (Aquinnah Wampanoag) took a degree in 1665 and died of tuberculosis a year later; classmate Joel Iacoombs (Aquinnah Wampanoag) disappeared in a shipwreck off Nantucket before walking; John Wampus (Aquinnah Wampanoag) bailed after a year and went to sea; and Benjamin Larnell and an otherwise unnamed “Eleazer” caught smallpox and died the year they enrolled.

** One account reports that only two of the Indians died on the first drop; the third was spared by his rope breaking, and after confessing the guilt of all three, he was re-executed.

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1676: Joshua Tefft, drawn and quartered in Rhode Island

3 comments January 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1676, Puritan colonist Joshua Tefft (or Tifft, or Tift) became perhaps the only person ever to suffer the traitor’s death of hanging and quartering in what is now the United States.

The 30-ish Rhode Island farmer got sucked into King Philip’s War and was captured by colonists apparently fighting for the Narragansett Indians during a the Great Swamp Fight.

Lacking a first-person account from Mr. Tefft, we are left to descry (or project) his purpose. Tefft himself claimed that he had been enslaved by the Indians, but he made this claim in the context of trying to avoid a grisly execution; opposing witnesses said he’d been much more enthusiastic in the fight, raising an evident horror of civilized man gone native.

Without English clothes and with a weather-beaten face, he looked like an Indian to the English. Tefft was a troubling example of what happened to a man when the Puritan’s god and culture were stripped away and Native savagery was allowed to take over. (Source)

He was one man caught up in a war, so of course he could have been many things. But Tefft invites speculation on racial self-identification on this still-tenuous New World frontier.

Living immediately adjacent to the Narragansett, Tefft was probably on good terms with the natives, something that at least some Anglos had keenly worked after for fifty-plus years. Some sources report (or charge) that he had taken an Indian wife,* and the Narragansett redoubt attacked in the Great Swamp Fight was a fortified encampment full of non-combatant types, hundreds of whom were eventually slaughtered.

And Rhode Island had a long-running border dispute with its Puritan fellow-colonists that intersected their historical differences on religious toleration. (Tefft is also decried as irreligious, though whether that’s literally true or just an extra heaping of opprobrium is anyone’s guess.) Why, after all, should a man not cohabit among the friendly peoples of his wife, and assist them when attacked — for the Narragansett were not at war until they were attacked — by a bunch of Connecticut and Plymouth colony prigs who’d want to shanghai him into their army?

One colonist able to sympathize with the Indians’ situation wrote of them that “perhaps if Englishmen, and good Christians too, had been in their case and under like temptations, possibly they might have done as they did.” Who knows but that some were, and they did.

Our Scouts brought in Prisoner one Tift, a Renegadoe English man, who having received a deserved punishment from our General, deserted our Army, and fled to the Enemy, where had good entertainment, and was again sent out by them with some of their forces; he was shot in the knee by our scouts, and then taken before he could discharge his musket, which was taken from him and found deep charged, and laden with Slugs: He was brought to our army, and tryed by a counsel of war, where he pretended that he was taken prisoner by the Indians, and by them compelled to bear Arms in their Service; but this being proved to be false, he was condemned to be hanged and Quartered, which was accordingly done. (Source)

But while some Indian tribes allied with some whites, European identification ultimately proved much too strong to admit any possibility of not banding together against the “savages.” When vengeful Narragansett warriors raided Providence the following spring and torched the house of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, Massachusetts in sympathy lifted its 39-year-old exile on the man they’d have hung as a heretic in days gone by.

By then, it had long been over for Joshua Tefft, whose trial preceded execution by only two days. Joshua’s son Peter and other descendants of the Tefft family, however, would be fruitful and multiply.

By the time these New World settlements became the United States a century later, drawing and quartering was still on the books in England. But the New York legislature expressed (pdf) the sense of that realm’s North American offspring that this sentence even for treason was “marked by circumstances of Savage Cruelty, unnecessary for the Purpose of public Justice, and manifestly repugnant to that Spirit of Humanity, which should ever distinguish a free, a civilized, and Christian People.”

* Joshua Tefft’s previous wife, Sara, had died from childbirth a few years before. For Sara, also notable as the owner of what was once thought to be the oldest marked headstone in New England, it was her second husband … the first, Thomas Flounders, was hanged for murder.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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1638: Three (of four) English colonists for murdering a Native American

5 comments September 4th, 2008 dogboy

Four hundred years removed from the events surrounding the colonization of Massachusetts by English settlers through the 1620′s, it’s difficult to properly evaluate the mindsets of either colonist or colonizer in this time of violent encounters and expansive cultural shifts.

The 1638 case of Arthur Peach, Thomas Jackson, Richard Stinnings, and Daniel Cross serves as a potent reminder that the relationship between the interlopers and natives in the early years of these meetings was driven as much by tribal politics as by interpersonal attitudes.

Peach, by all accounts, was not on track to be elected Plymouth Man of the Year. A servant of Edward Winslow, one of the Mayflower originals responsible for political gaming with the native leaders, Peach was dispatched to serve in the Pequot War in 1637. The war pitted English colonists and some of their tribal neighbors against the Pequots and resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of Pequot in several attacks.

Peach went work-idle in the post-war years, enjoying his remaining youth: he frequently drank and spent evenings in merriment with his friends, accumulating a sizable debt in the process; said merriment also extended to impregnating Dorothy Temple, a servant of Stephen Hopkins (who was, in one of the less surprising twists, later charged with allowing drunken merriment of his servants in his house).

Plymouth Colony leader William Bradford: Can’t we all get along?

William Bradford speculates that it was to escape punishment for this latter social offense that Peach convinced three other indentured servants to break their bonds and follow him to the nearby Dutch plantations. No matter the motive, they were ill-advised to join him.

Along the way, the quartet came across a man of the Nipmuc tribe (allied with the English and Narragansett during the recent war) named Penowanyanquis. They convinced him to stay, smoked a pipe and talked trade, then stabbed and robbed him, leaving him for what they thought was dead; Penowanyanquis was found on the road and lived for several more days, plenty of time to describe his attackers to first his tribesmen, then the Englishman Roger Williams.

The Plymouth authorities accepted the case (in Plymouth, though the event occurred far from its apparent jurisdiction) in the interests of maintaining the tenuous peace with the New England natives — in Bradford’s words, “The Gov[ernment] in the Bay were aquented with it, but refferrd it hither, because it was done in this jurissdiction; but pressed by all means that justice might be done in it; or els the countrie must rise and see justice done, otherwise it would raise a warr.”

Peach, Jackson, and Stinnings were caught at Aquidneck Island, while Cross fled to Piscataqua (New Hampshire), where it was traditional for locals to refuse to help Plymouth colonials. The three detainees were tried, with much of the trial devoted to proving that Penowanyanquis was, in fact, dead. It took two Narragansett to affirm upon pain of their own heads that Penowanyanquis had succumbed to his injuries, but their testimony sent three whites to the gallows for killing an Indian; for the second time since the Plymouth colony was established 18 years prior, a murderer was hanged.*

The oddity of the affair is not that such a conviction occurred — it was a long-standing colonial tradition to uphold treaties with natives through civil law and break them in a variety of other ways — but the reaction of persons involved before and during the trial. To wit:

Ousamequin coming from Plymouth told me that the four men were all guilty. I answered but one; he replied true, one wounded him, but all lay in wait two days and assisted. Also that the principal must not die, for he was Mr. Winslow’s man; and also that the Indian was by birth a Nipmuck man, so not worthy that any other man should die for him.

Ousamequin, here making the case that Peach should be spared, was another name for Massasoit, the old chief of the Pokanoket whose special kinship with Peach’s indenturerer Winslow was cemented after the settler brought a severely ill Massasoit European remedies when the chief was struck with an unnamed ailment in 1623.

Nor, indeed, were the colonists uniformly positive about the event: Bradford reports that “[s]ome of the rude and ignorant sorte murmured that any English should be put to death for the Indean.”

Massasoit himself seems to have been the only thing holding the colonial relationship together: Metacomet (“King Philip”) took the title of Great Sachem shortly after Massasoit’s death, and his alliances with other tribes exacerbated the harsh feeling towards English attempts to Christianize their neighboring “heathens”. With the white population expanding swiftly beyond its early boundaries, a small event was bound to spell trouble, and when the Christian convert John Sassamon (an Indian) was found murdered and three Wampanoag were executed for the deed, Indian sovereignty was impugned.

King Philip’s War was on, and it did not end well for the native Americans.

No.

To his credit, Peach still produced a son, and Temple’s pregnancy ended the public life of Hopkins. Hopkins was charged with mistreating Temple, who was his indentured servant, and ordered to pay for both her and her child through the two years remaining on her contract.

Hopkins dissented and was jailed, bailed out four days later by John Holmes, who purchased Temple’s servitude for a whopping three pounds (somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 the price of a cow). Her son remains unnamed in the record, but after giving birth, Temple was charged with producing a bastard child and whipped. Her fate thereafter is lost to the mists of history, as are the future exploits of Daniel Cross.

* The first was Mayflower original John Billington, who was executed in 1630 for shooting John Newcomen to resolve what was apparently a long-standing dispute.

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