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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