The Transformation of Culture and Religion in Colonial New England

Updated on September 24, 2019

Settlers and Natives

When North America became a vision of freedom and a promise of a new life far away from the conflicts and struggles of Britain, settlers came to build new lives in the exciting and fertile land. Many individuals who sought religious freedom made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to make their homes in what is now known as New England, in the North Eastern corner of the modern United States. In the beginning, these settlers were unable to survive on their own, but thanks to the cooperation and friendship of Native Americans who lived in the area, they were able to learn to grow food and to navigate the mysterious geography. This relationship between the Puritans and the Native American tribes was complicated and ever-changing. The lives of the indigenous people and the lives of the European settlers would be entangled and forever altered because of these first meetings and interactions. What started out as a relationship of mutual benefit slowly degraded into hostility caused by cultural misunderstanding, a growing imbalance of power, and the refusal of settlers to concede to the wishes of the natives. The spread of Puritan and English values throughout the region would cause a transformation of the Native American cultures and would also transform the ideas and perceptions of the settlers. The events which transpired would carve the way for the destruction of a people and the growth of a thriving colony.


There were several Native American tribes in the area prior to European colonization. Each had their own customs, beliefs, and culture but little is known about the details of their daily lives out of context with the English settlers. It is however known that they maintained significant agricultural and trading practices, which allowed them to live cooperatively among themselves and to subsist well off of the land. [1] Before settlers came to New England on the Mayflower, smallpox had wiped out a great percentage of the indigenous population in the area. The disease was spread to the people by sailors aboard European trading ships, and without any resistance or medical treatment, many Native Americans died of the illness. This left the land relatively empty and open for the settlers who considered the epidemic among the natives to be an act of goodwill toward them by God. [2] They believed that God had cleared the land for them to give them a place of their own. This belief contributed to the persistent missionary endeavors of the Puritan settlers, and increased the significance of religion within the relationship between the natives and the Europeans in colonial New England.

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1. Silver, Timothy H. Three Worlds, Three Views: Culture and Environmental Change in the Colonial South. Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center.
http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntuseland/essays/threeworlds.htm

2. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Boston Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2014. Page 62.

Colonial New England Map
Colonial New England Map

Early Interactions

Europeans traveled to the American continent for various reasons, but the Puritans in particular migrated to New England in order to escape religious persecution, which was rampant in Britain during this time. Puritans were opposed to the excessive, extravagant rituals of Catholicism and believed that God could be worshiped without such flashy rituals and extreme expressions of faith. The Church of England was the prevailing entity in Britain at the time, holding more authority than even the crown, so opposition to the Church was akin to being opposed to the country itself. This conflict with the Church prompted many followers of unaccepted religions, including the Puritans examined here, to travel across the Atlantic to stake their claim in the Americas.

Much of the relationship between the settlers of New England and the native tribes was based upon a mutually beneficial relationship in the beginning. Unlike the settlers who came to the southern colonies in search of wealth for the Virginia Company, the settlers in the Northern areas of the continent came with the intention of building homes and communities in which to start entirely new lives. This pursuit led them to go about the establishment of their colonies and their relationships with natives in a different and more peaceful manner than that of their Southern counterparts. While in the South, natives were often seen as only a means of gain to the Europeans who wanted their food, furs, and land, the settlers in the New England colonies sought understanding, cooperation, and the opportunity to spread the word of God to these people who they believed to be without religion. [3] Missionary efforts were common throughout the entirety of the new world. In general, Native Americans were spared the punishment which was seen as justified upon heretics because their religious beliefs were unknown to the Europeans. They were considered spiritually impoverished rather than blatantly "unChristian." If they had no knowledge of God, they weren’t denying him, and so settlers set out to teach them rather than to punish them.


Religious separatists sought the New World in hopes of finding a safe haven in which they could practice their religion and maintain their own culture and language. After separating from the Church of England, they left Britain and eventually endeavored to cross the Atlantic to settle in North America. A group of settlers came to the area of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and established the Plymouth colony in 1635. Here, they were greeted by emissaries of the Wampanoag tribe and presented with gifts of food and an offer of friendship. One of the individuals who traveled to North America on the Mayflower was named Edward Winslow. Winslow wrote a series of letters to his friends detailing the struggles of the settlers during the first years in the New World. Among these letters, he recounts the first meeting between the settlers and Native Americans. In his writings, he describes how they had heard of many threats against them by the native tribes in the surrounding areas and were worried about being met with aggression. The first Native Americans that the settlers met were very kind and friendly, which caught them off-guard. [4] The recounting of these feelings shows an example of how the English who came to New England brought with them preconceived notions of barbarism among the natives because of stories they had heard from other travelers. These prejudices were eventually put to rest by positive interactions between them and the tribes. Following this initial contact, a period of cooperation persisted between them. The Native Americans would help the settlers to find and cultivate food that would thrive in the area. With the assistance of the indigenous people, and their own perseverance, the settlements in New England took root and grew into prosperous colonies.

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3. Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Chapter 5.4.

4. Wisecup, Kelly, ed. "Good News from New England" by Edward Winslow: A Scholarly Edition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014. Page 59.

New England Puritans
New England Puritans | Source

Growing Tensions

Sixteen years after the first contact between the Puritan settlers and indigenous tribes, hostilities overtook the peaceful and cooperative relationship which had been present between the groups. A violent war between the Pequot Native Americans and the Puritans took place in Connecticut, which has been aptly named the Pequot War. Native villages had been recovering from the devastation of small pox and were beginning to repopulate and thrive. The settlers considered these growing communities a barrier in their attempts to acquire, settle, and use more land. As a show of dominance, the settlers entered nearby Native American villages and attacked them. The Native Americans responded in kind, and a heinous war broke out which put an end to the peace. This type of warfare was new to the indigenous peoples who had until that point engaged only in small scale wars with few casualties. The savagery and body count of the Pequot War was astonishing and disgusting to the natives who had allied with the Puritans in the hope of receiving rewards for the alliance. With disgust at this needless loss of life, the native tribes who had helped the Puritans in their fight against the Pequot denounced their friendship with the settlers. [5] This was the first instance of such forms of violence for the Native Americans of the area and unfortunately, the experience was the first of many and was a turning point in the lives of the Native American people. War had a new face and would be a lasting specter in their world.


There was a short period of peace which followed the Pequot War, during which religion became one of the most influential aspects of settler-Native American relations. The efforts of missionaries to convert Native Americans to Christianity had a profound influence on the lives and cultures of the Native Americans, as well as on the practice of Christianity itself. The way that Native Americans adopted Christianity and grafted it to their own beliefs and traditions had a powerful influence on the religious experiences of the English colonists and on the way that they perceived the natives’ cultures. [6] European missionaries originally knew next to nothing about Native American people, and therefore didn’t know how best to go about their missionary efforts. In an attempt to learn how to communicate with and teach them, missionaries sought the help of Native American assistants who would help them interact with the tribes and to build a mutual understanding. [7] These assistants would become Christian Native leaders and would carry out the work of the church. The English noticed right away that the manner in which these people worshiped, and practiced Christianity was different from any they had ever seen. They would combine the teachings of the church with their own customs and traditions in a way that allowed them to express a new and powerful form of religious leadership among their people. [8] Observance of these new forms of worship led to an evolution of the way they viewed religious leadership, and in this way, the Christian Native leaders unintentionally shaped the colonists’ ideas and attitudes surrounding what was considered truly faithful religious worship and leadership. Native Americans were changed forever by the introduction and spread of Christianity among them, while English Christians were also changed by the way that natives showed their faith.

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5. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. 2014. Page 62.

6. Winiarski, Douglas L. “Native American Popular Religion in New England's Old Colony, 1670–1770.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 15, no. 2. Page 5.

7. Pointer, Richard. Encounters of the Spirit: Native Americans and European Colonial Religion. (Religion in North America.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2007. Page 122.

8. Pointer, Richard. Encounters of the Spirit. 2007. Page 123.

Artistic Rendition of Events Within King Phillip's War
Artistic Rendition of Events Within King Phillip's War | Source

Religious Conversion

As more Native Americans accepted the gospel of the missionaries, the cultures of the tribes began to transform. Villages were erected for the purpose of housing Christian Natives, where they could live under the protection and guidance of the colonies while practicing their faith. These were called Prayer Towns. The migration of so many Native Americans to these prayer towns drove a wedge between them and the tribes who rejected the teachings of the missionaries. [9] The Christianized natives did not so much abandon their culture as transform it by fusing it with the lifestyle, structures, and religious practices of the Puritans. They became akin to citizens for the colonies and were recognized as nearly equal to the settlers, unlike the natives which remained among their tribes who were always considered separate and different from the colonists. This would be a division of great significance in coming years, as the peace between the tribes and the settlers faded. This particular form of “civilizing” the Native Americans would forever change the lives of natives as well as the lives of the settlers.

Native Americans from separate tribes were brought together into these Prayer Towns and "civilized" under the protection of the English. This changed the cultures of the people in these towns as they evolved with one another, with a new religion, and with a new sense of community. Roughly twenty percent of the native population in the area had converted to Christianity by the time King Philip’s War began. [10] When the majority of the native tribes were decimated following King Philip’s War, most of the remaining Native Americans in the area were these Christianized natives, making this new sort of native culture the prominent one.


Following the Pequot War, there was a period of relative peace between the indigenous peoples and the European settlers, but indifference toward the complaints of otherwise cooperative natives would eventually lead to building tensions between the tribes and the colonists. Leadership among the Native Americans made efforts to cooperate and blend with the dominant culture of the English, and despite many grievances throughout the years, attempts to compromise and develop a stronger cultural understanding were of highest priority. As these grievances were growing and compounding on the side of the natives however, tension increased to the point of turmoil. A final effort was made between English diplomats and Chief Metacom, whom the English had named King Philip, in 1675. [11] A group of Englishmen went to meet with Metacom in the hopes of understanding the source of growing hostilities and of finding common ground to avoid further conflict. John Easton was the Attorney General of the Rhode Island colony in 1675. He was one of the Englishmen who went to meet with Metacom that day, and he took the opportunity to write down the details of the meeting and to transcribe the grievances presented by the chief.

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9. Winiarski, Douglas L. “Native American Popular Religion.” Page 19.

10. Pulsipher, Jenny H. “Massacre at Hurtleberry Hill: Christian Indians and English Authority in Metacom's War.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 53, no. 3. Page 7.

11. Easton, John. Metacom Relates Indian Complaints about the English Settlers, 1675. Retrieved from: Historymatters.gmu.edu

Chief Metacom
Chief Metacom | Source

Major Points of Dispute

Several major grievances were put forth by Metacom on behalf of his people during this meeting, as he explained to the English why the Native Americans were growing frustrated and considering retaliation against the settlers. The complaint most often noted is that of aggressive land grabbing by the colonists which was extending well beyond previously agreed boundaries and was often done through force or trickery. Metacom expressed during the meeting that the English continuously cheated the natives out of their land by purchasing more than was intended, taking more than was promised, and underpaying for land that was legitimately purchased. He claimed that the English would often get the Native Americans drunk and trick them into unfair deals. [12] This was a major cause of conflict, but it was not the only one. Another of the primary issues presented was that of the settlers’ livestock.


The control of livestock quickly became one of the most troubling issues between the Native Americans and the settlers. English colonists brought thousands of animals to raise as livestock in the new colonies which were not native to North America. The presence of these alien species proved to be trouble for the ecosystems and environments in North America, and this was noted by the native tribes. Cattle would trample the ground beneath them, crushing undergrowth and low-growing plants. Hogs would run amok in the forests and disturb other wildlife, leaving droppings and general destruction where they went. These animals would eat plants that the native wildlife needed to maintain their population, would chase them away from their habitats, and would even spread sickness to wildlife and to people. The colonists considered these livestock to be necessary for their ability to survive in the colonies and refused to acknowledge any related grievances presented by the native people. While Metacom intended to accept and adapt to English influence in the region, he found it difficult to deny the problems caused by the presence of their animals. [13] During the meeting with the English, Metacom expressed that countless attempts to convince settlers to take responsibility for their livestock had fallen on deaf ears. [14] Despite both groups entering this meeting with the intention of cooperating and preserving the peace, the settlers found Metacom’s grievances to be unfounded and his demands to be unreasonable. The settlers refused to change their behavior, and this culminated in the final bloody conflict between the Native Americans and settlers of New England. Shortly after this meeting took place, several settlement towns were viciously attacked and set aflame, this was the start of what is now called King Philip’s War.

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12. Easton, John. Metacom Relates Indian Complaints about the English Settlers, 1675.

13. Anderson, Virginia D. “King Philip's Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 51, no. 4. Page 3.

14. Easton, John. Metacom Relates Indian Complaints about the English Settlers, 1675.

Christian Preaching to Native Americans
Christian Preaching to Native Americans | Source

Without a People

At the beginning of King Philip's War, several distinct groups of people were living
in New England, and in the surrounding areas. There were the English settlers, independent Native American groups, and the Christian Natives who lived in English controlled Prayer Towns. Ties of cooperation, friendship, alliance, and trading systems existed for many years between all of these groups, giving the area a certain economic level and a social atmosphere that was like no other place. The outbreak of King Philip’s War put an end to these ties and to the interconnectedness of these different communities. Christian Natives broke ties with the non-converted native people and joined with the English in the war effort, fighting for faith against people of their own race. [15] The division between Christianized Native Americans and those who resisted conversion began much earlier, as the Christian Natives split from the others to live under the protection and governance of Europeans. This itself was an act of disloyalty and betrayal but was for the most part forgiven by the native tribes who sought understanding with the newcomers. When King Philip's War compelled the Christian Natives to fight against the other natives however, this division became undeniable. [16] Different tribes of Native Americans had always cooperated or conflicted in various ways and at different levels with one another, but this was the first time that a large group had chosen the side of the English without question. Internal relationships among natives would be forever changed by this conflict.


Christian Natives struggled throughout these tensions because while they had abandoned their own culture in favor of the English, the war had caused anti-native sentiments to spiral out of control. Although the Christianized natives had proclaimed their fidelity to the colonists, the settlers no longer trusted any Native Americans. The Christian Natives were without a people, being exiled by both the native tribes and by the English who had taken them in and accepted them as their own until this point. The General Court had implemented a decree during King Philip’s War that if any Native Americans, Christian or not, were found more than a mile from the center of their villages or the islands which they were later exiled to, they could be legally killed. [17] Even Christian Natives who had undergone the necessary precautions and received legal permission to leave their villages to forage were being killed by over-protective or prejudiced settlers.


The final attempt by the native tribes to repel the settlers and stop them from continuing to take tribal lands and destroy the ecosystems with their livestock was an assault on several villages, which kicked off King Philip’s War. King Philip’s War ended in favor of the colonists, after about three years of bloody conflict. This war marked the end of an era of cooperation, and indeed an end to the Native American tribes in the area. Following the English victory, the last of the tribes were hunted down and massacred, leaving only the Christianized Native Americans and those who had proven their loyalty to the colonies.

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15. Pulsipher, Jenny H. “Massacre at Hurtleberry Hill.” Page 4.

16. Pulsipher, Jenny H. “Massacre at Hurtleberry Hill.” Page 15.

17. Pulsipher, Jenny H. “Massacre at Hurtleberry Hill.” Page 6.

A Different World

Several decades of cooperation between the Native American tribes and the Puritan settlers of New England were left behind in the wake of King Philip’s War. This event had a huge hand in the final decimation of the native population before the Indian Removal Act, which would come much later. The cultures of the natives who remained were forever transformed by the introduction of English “civilization” and Christian religious beliefs and values. Native Americans combined these two seemingly opposing worldviews and made something altogether new. The English settlers who watched this transformation of culture unfold were changed as well, and their traditions and religious views were questioned and altered in favor of this new way of life. While ultimately the Native Americans suffered almost total loss at the end of this complicated relationship, they did survive in some way through cultural adaptation as they found a new place in a new and changing world.

Blibliography

Anderson, Virginia D. “King Philip's Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 51, no. 4 (Oct., 1994): 601-624. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2946921.

Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Boston Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2014. ISBN: 007000418.

Easton, John. Metacom Relates Indian Complaints about the English Settlers, 1675. Retrieved from: Historymatters.gmu.edu

Pointer, Richard. Encounters of the Spirit: Native Americans and European Colonial Religion. (Religion in North America.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2007.

Pulsipher, Jenny H. “Massacre at Hurtleberry Hill: Christian Indians and English Authority in Metacom's War.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 53, no. 3, (July 1996): 459-486.

Silver, Timothy H. Three Worlds, Three Views: Culture and Environmental Change in the Colonial South. Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. Accessed Feb. 10th, 2019. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntuseland/essays/threeworlds.htm

Winiarski, Douglas L. “Native American Popular Religion in New England's Old Colony, 1670–1770.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 15, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 147-186.

Wisecup, Kelly, ed. "Good News from New England" by Edward Winslow: A Scholarly Edition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014. Accessed April 22, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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