So, yesterday I was working away in the library on my next impressive tome, and this link came in over the bloggy transom, Colonial History: Nothing but Massacres?, in commemoration of the raid by French-allied Indians (Wabanaki, Hurons, and Mohawks) on Deerfield, Massachusetts on the night of February 28-29, 1704. It was posted by Ari Kelman at The Edge of the American West at the very moment I was re-reading the neglected but bloody finale to Colonel Benjamin Church’s Indian-killing career as recounted in his Entertaining passages relating to Philip’s War which began in the month of June, 1675 (1716). (Barbies in the morning, barbarism all afternoon–such is Historiann’s eccentric intellectual life!) Contrary to the title, the book documents his successive Indian fighting expeditions through 1704, when at the age of 65 he proposed leading a murderous raid on the Wabanaki and French Acadians living around the Gulf of Maine in retaliation for the Deerfield attack. Never mind that few if any Acadians or Maine Wabanaki were involved in the Deerfield raid–Church was probably looking for a pretext to attack in Maine and Acadia. (He had attempted a similar raid in 1696 during King William’s War, when he succeeded in killing mostly livestock rather than French or Indian people.)
What does it mean when we frame colonial history (in Ari Kelman’s prankishly exaggerated term) as “nothing but massacres,” rather than as Anglo-American agricultural villages (“peaceable kingdoms”) that through the organic experience of small government developed the concept of “popular sovereignty” and Republicanism? Well, for one, we get a colonial history that merges seamlessly with the history of the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (“Manifest Destiny,” the Frontier Army, and U.S. imperialism from Cuba and the Phillipines to Iraq). We also get a more inclusive picture of colonial America, which included Indian and African peoples as well as Europeans and Euro-Americans, as well as a colonial history that has more continuities rather than differences with the colonial histories of Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and central and South America. Therefore, the “nothing but massacres” frame is something that seriously challenges claims to American Exceptionalism.
One of the problems colonial historians have in writing these more inclusive histories is that we have lengthy, detailed accounts of attacks on English towns and families written by the survivors, but we have no comparable documentation of English attacks on Indian villages and families, and Native oral histories can’t entirely compensate. Col. Church is so proud of his efforts to imprison and kill Wabanaki and French people that his neglected post-King Philip’s War career can fill in some of these gaps. Church reports that his charge from Governor Joseph Dudley gives him free reign between the Piscataqua and St. Croix Rivers, and over to Mount Desert and Acadia (Nova Scotia), to “use all possible Methods for the burning and destroying of the Enemies Housing, and breaking the Dams of their Corn grounds in the said several places, and make what other Spoils you can upon them, and bring away the Prisoners.” After they “kill’d and took every one both French & Indians, not knowing that any one did escape in all Penobscot,” they proceeded to “Passamequedo” up the St. Croix River, where Church was involved in a confusing skirmish with the scattered locals, “never asking whether they were French or Indians; they being all Enemies alike to me.” Church and his men then proceeded to Acadia to sack and burn the French Acadian town of Menis (Minas), and to take “as many Prisoners as they could desire” from another Acadian town, but declined to attack Port Royal, and so returned to the mainland to seek out Wabanaki settlements in the Penobscot and Kennebec River valleys, especially the Catholic mission town at Norridgewock.
Church was unsuccessful in routing Norridgewock–he reports that when the Wabanaki there had heard that the English had “swept” Penobscot of its “Inhabitants, as if it had been swept with a Broom,” they cleared out of Norridgewock so quickly they left their “Ruff houshold-stuff and Corn behind them.” (This was only one of many failed English expeditions to destroy Norridgewock and its French Jesuit missionaries–a feat they wouldn’t accomplish for another twenty years.) The Norridgewock Wabanaki were mobile and had long-established connections with the mission Indians at St. Francis, near Quebec, but they probably didn’t all head North that summer of 1704–at least some of them remained to counter-attack English towns, especially Wells, Maine, where on August 10 they took dozens of captives, including Esther Wheelwright. Church’s attacks were deadly, but they didn’t dissuade French and Wabanaki people from attacking English towns, as Church had hoped–his attacks probably only fueled their determination to drive the English out of Maine, and that’s a lesson that few in political and military leadership have ever seemed to learn in American history.