Our Beloved Kin: Remapping A New History of King Philip's War

"Whom I have sent to them in Love to reclaim them from their folly"

In the spring of 1667, the Narrangansett saunkskwa Quaiapin answered a complaint by John Eliot and the Massachusetts Council that she had sent a force of over a hundred warriors to “rob” the Nipmucs of Webquasset. The missionary characterized Quaiapin as a woman who, “having buried her husband and son, is now in some power” and “involved in some exploits.” In her letter, Quaiapin insisted that she and her men had acted according to “our custom” and in “a mild and gentle manner” when they “took some of their goods” at Quantisset. She sent her “men” upriver from her town of Woosowenbiskw to “in moderation deall with those nipnap [Nipmuc] Indiyans” who were “formerly my Husbands and sons men and time out of mind did belong to theyr ancestors.” In Algonquian terms, this meant that the Nipmuc people of Quantisset were under her protection, as saunkskwa, and connected to Woosowenbiskw by bonds of kinship and alliance. She asserted that they had “rebelled against me in severall respects first by robbing and spoyling my men, some of them, second by retaining those royaltys from me which belong to me, thirdly by naming theyr deceased sachim my sonn, which violated our laws and customs.”

“Royaltys,” in the context of seventeenth-century English usage, meant the rights and privileges belonging to a monarch. Thus, Quaiapin was asserting the “queen’s right” to respect and acknowledgment, in wampum, corn, goods as well as words, by a neighboring community which, she insisted, had long been under her relations’ protection or jurisdiction. The Massachusetts colonists interpreted this as “tribute,” but that word did not suffice for describing the cultural and relational role of acknowledgment. It is interesting that Quaiapin, or her scribe, replaced “tribute” with “royalties.” Acknowledgement was a “gathering,” what is due an elder, leader or a protector, in the context of past relationships. In this letter, Quaiapin attempted to explain to the newcomers the longstanding relationships and customs which, as foreigners, they often misunderstood.

John Eliot depicted Quaiapin as “a wicked woman” who “picked a quarrel with the Nipmuc Indians” and “in hostile manner fell upon them” and “robbed and spoiled them” of sundry goods and swine, “besides 30 acres of corn.” Quaiapin, in her statement, countered that they did not act “in [a] hostile or warlike manner to spill blood.” As her representatives asserted to the Massachusetts magistrates, those men “under” Quaiapin took matts, guns and ammunition, hides, swine, wampum, as well as “some coats and red cotton,” kettles and “dried huckleberries” as was due to their saunkskwa, and admitted “they spent some of the corn that was standing in the field” which they ate “while they abode there.” Most important, in her letter, Quaiapin insisted that her men were “sent to them in Love to reclaim them from their folly,” invoking not only the violations of “custom” but the burgeoning affiliation with missionaries, including Eliot.

The Nipmucs, who had originally lodged the complaint through Eliot, retorted that they did not regard themselves as being under Quaiapin or any other Narragansett sachem. Rather, they “affirm[ed] they are a free people” who have “from time to time chosen their sachems by the suffrage of twelve principall men deputed thereunto.” They denied “any just tribute due to the Narragansett sachems” but rather asserted that any goods, wampum or corn given to their Narragansett neighbors in the past were given “in a way of love, and as a present unto them & not by way or right or due.” Both groups used the language of friendship and “love,” referring to kinship ties and reciprocal exchange to describe their relationship with each other, although they were at this junction embroiled in tension. In Native diplomacy and translation, “love” represented the presence of friendship and good will, the absence of force or compulsion. The Nipmucs asserted that they had offered gifts freely, in a spirit of generosity; the Narragansetts asserted that they were “reclaiming” relations who had gone astray, who were not following the “customs” of distribution and diplomacy, or honoring political agreements which had been followed by their ancestors.

Massachusetts colony, in their statements, acknowledged their more recent political relationships to both communities, and offered to “endeavor a reconciliation” between the two. They addressed both “the Sagamore living at Quatisik fort in Nipmuck country” and Quaiapin, as a “squa sachem” who was “at present in Chief power at the fort of Woossowenbisque in the Narragansett Country” as “our neighbors and friends,” recognizing mutual authority and the relationships of alliance between themselves and the neighboring nations. Massachusetts’ relationship to the Narragansetts was grounded, as both parties acknowledged, in their treaty of alliance and friendship from 1645, during which the Narragansetts pledged they would not wage war on neighboring Indian nations without informing their colonial neighbors. Likewise, the Court understood its duty to protect those praying towns that had accepted their religion and jurisdiction.

During a court session resulting from this case, the Nipmucs of Quantisset pledged their desire to “live under the government & protection of the Massachusetts, unto whom they yield up themselves & people” as well as their willingness to “pray unto God” and “submit to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Indeed, the covenant of 1668 may have arisen from this case and its complex negotiation of alliance. When the Narragansetts returned to Massachusetts to council in May 1668, they offered proof of their historical leadership; however, they were willing, if these Nipmuc people proved “real in their profession to serve God,” to surrender their claims to jurisdiction and tribute and turn the responsibility for protection of Quantisset and its neighbors over to “the Massachusetts,” Like Uncas, Quaiapin clearly understood the relationship between missionary conversion and colonial political advances, yet she was willing to acknowledge the autonomy of the Nipmuc people, to whom she was bound, and renegotiate that relationship, releasing her responsibility, should their “profession” proved “real.”[i]
[i] Connole 79-82; “Letter of John Eliot, July 3, 1667” Massachusetts Historical Society, #138; “Letter from Governor and Council to the Squa Sachim late wife of Mexano…July 6, 1667” Massachusetts Historical Society, #139; “Wotowsaukwas to Massachusetts Governor and Council, October 1667” Massachusetts Historical Society, #140; Shurtleft, Colonial Records of Massachusetts, v. 4, pt. 2, 357-9, 378, 385-6.