Leverett historian looks at King Philip’s War and sees modern parallels

  • Lisa Brooks​​​​​​

Monday, January 15, 2018

The story of King Philip’s War, which ended 440 years ago, may be central to the history of this place, marked in locations like King Philip’s Hill in Northfield, the Bloody Brook Battle monument in Deerfield, and even King Philip restaurant in Phillipston. The three-year armed conflict is largely blamed on attacks on colonial settlers by Wampanoags and other native “savages.”

But a book released this week by Amherst College associate professor Lisa Brooks, an Abenaki, depicts the prolonged war on a dozen settlements throughout much of the region as more complex. And it’s seen as the result of mistaken assumptions English settlers made about the native tribes.

What’s more, Lisa Brooks’ “Our Beloved Kin” (Yale University Press) is based on written letters and other materials written by those Indians, who are largely assumed to have been illiterate. And the creative, readable telling by this associate professor of English and American studies she describes as a relevant and timely interpretation, suggesting the plight of refugees and racial profiling.

Her history, which traces the interwoven paths of three characters — Wampanoag leader Weetamoo, who as a woman is less known than Metacomet (aka King Philip); James Printer, the persecuted Christian Nipmuc; and Mary Rowlandson, the Puritan woman whose own account of her capture in Lancaster is recast in this deeper interpretation.

Brooks, who began learning about the indigenous history of the region when she worked in the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi’s Vermont tribal office while finishing her undergraduate degree at Goddard College. That work, on native rights and land preservation cases, awoke her to a startling reality: there are still ‘Indians’ in New England.

“The illusion in New England was that all these people disappeared,” she said recently, “but the reality is that these people have remained in those places and know those places like nobody knows those places.”

Brooks also learned then of the vast array of existing written deeds, historical accounts and even collective petitions to the King by indigenous people.

And she found archives of written accounts by Indians, some of whom — like James Printer — prepared for training at Harvard Indian College, established as part of the college’s 1650 charter in an effort to convert native people to Christianity. The college effectively taught children of leaders to spread literacy among others in the tribe.

In researching “Our Beloved Kin,” she turned to documents at the Massachusetts Archives and the Massachusetts Historical Society, as well as the vast Native American Literature Collection at Amherst College, where Brooks arrived in 2012 after teaching at the humanities at Harvard.

“What shocked me, when I decided to go to graduate school (at Boston College, and then Cornell University) was that my professors believed there were no sources. I realized, ‘oh my God, people don’t even know native people are still here, they don’t realize how present they are in the historical record, they don’t realize native people are writing about the most pressing issues people are talking about, even when we’re talking about environmental issues.’ A lot of my research came out of that moment of disjunct, where for me native history was at the very center of American history and American literature. There was a sense of dissonance that for them it was so far on the margins it didn’t even exist.”

Brooks’ second book — her first, in 2008, was “The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in New England” (University of Minnesota Press) — began as the story of Printer, who had four brothers and attended preparatory school, yet all were drawn into the in the conflict between colonists and Wampanoags, Nipmucs, Naragansetts and Pocumtucs that began just 55 years after Plymouth’s settlers had been welcomed in a spirit of peace by Metacomet’s father, Massasoit.


“I did not intend to write a book about King Philip’s War,” she says. “I got to talking with people in the Nipmuc community about James Printer. This is an amazing story about four brothers who got caught up in the war. They’re just illustrative of what happens to most people in war. Most people in war are not the people making decisions about how things are going to go. Most people, the war arrives and you suddenly have to figure out how you and your children and your relatives and the people you care about — how you’re going to survive.”

Printer, who along with his brother Job, became a teacher in Nipmuc communities, but he became a typesetter at Harvard Press, as well as a translator there for its bilingual Bible. The brothers were accused while in what is now Marlborough of taking part in attacks on settlers in Lancaster, even though there was no evidence and they were later found in trial to have been attending church.

“What James Printer goes through during this war is almost unthinkable,” says Brooks. Accused of murdering English settlers, he was part of a group of “Christian Indians” who were led, with ropes around their necks, to prison in Boston, where a lynch mob gathered. After about a month they were tried, and he was found innocent.

Along with his brother, Job — who had served as a scout for colonial troops, traveling 80 miles on snowshoes at one point to warn of a later impending Lancaster raid — yet faced a mob mentality that “all the Indians must just be going rogue,” says Brooks. “The English are thinking with a racial logic: ‘All the Indians are going to band together.’ But there’s no such concept here. There’s no sense that we’re all the same race, because race didn’t exist for them. For them, was more important what are your kinship relationships? What are your alliances?”

‘Great Beaver’

A similar account by Brooks reflects the difference between the standard narrative and the one conveyed in “Our Beloved Kin” over the battle just south of Deerfield’s Mount Sugarloaf — known with the hill to its west as the Great Beaver — that began hostilities in the Kwinitekw valley in August 1675.

Despite generally good relations between the native people at Nonotuk, the upland north of Northampton yet south of Hadley, an attack at Quaboag — now the Worcester County community of Brookfield — caused fear that they would be the next settlement hit by their Indian neighbors. A contingent of Massachusetts forces convinced settlers to launch a surprise dawn raid to confiscate all Nonotuk firearms, which natives used for hunting.

“This was on the verge of the fall hunting period,” says Brooks. “And even today, we know that native families are dependent on hunting to get through the winter. For some people, not having access to firearms led to starvation. The (colonists) were thinking of it as military disarmament, but to native people, it was about subsistence,” and they fled north, to relatives in Pocumtuc (Deerfield) and Squakheag (Northfield) — pursued by 100 members of the Massachusetts colonial forces.

The confrontation, at the foot of the hills described by the Pocumtuks as Ktsi Amiskw, the great beaver, had symbolic significance for the natives, who’d long told of the Great Beaver hoarding resources by backing up the river with its dam and the “great transformer,” Hobbomock, which restored the balance by battling with the beaver — and eventually breaking its neck to let the water flow again.

“The native story goes back thousands of years, and in some ways it’s about creation of what is now native Glacial Lake Hitchcock and its dispersal, becoming the Connecticut River,” says Brooks. “For me, this is incredibly symbolic,” with British settlers spilling blood of the people of the Connecticut River Valley for the first time here, and then in subsequent battles at Bloody Brook, at Northfield and at the Great Falls Fight in what’s now Turners Falls.

Brooks also finds symbolism in how these battles later are marked memorializing slain settlers, but silent on the natives’ perspective. In the case of a memorial to Capt. Richard Beers, along Route 63 in Northfield, for example, there’s no mention of its location or what were then planting in fields, with “no memory of the native women who planted there.”

While Philip’s sister-in-law, Weetamoo, who is well known among the Wampanoags and Nipmucs, as a leader in her own right, most standard tellings describe her, on the eve of war, having a marriage alliance with the Narragansett tribe native history, Or they covey her ringing her hands trying to decide whether to warn of an impending attack by colonists or to help Plymouth Gov. Winslow, who sought her neutrality. Brooks says she tried to present a much fuller picture of a strong negotiator and diplomat, skilled at building alliances and on guard against “deed games” played by colonists trying to grab land.

Ultimately, the kinship network prevailed, and Weetamoo let King Philip and others know an attack was planned. When Plymouth Colony forces arrive at their settlement, says Brooks, “there’s nothing there but some pigs and dogs.”

In early March 1676, Weetamoo was part of a group of women — including Puritan captive Mary Rowlandson — along with children and elders, all pursued by colonial forces across the freezing-cold Paquaug River, now the Millers River in Athol. In Rowlandson’s account — which was printed at Harvard Press by Printer, who also helped negotiate her release — the women used dead wood to build a raft and cross the river, building camp on the other side as they headed north.

The same day that they crossed, she reported being astounded that the colonial army was unable to follow across. The women were saved by their resourcefulness.

Making connections

​​​​​​“Our Beloved Kin,” 10 years in the making, is accompanied by a companion website — ourbelovedkin.com — that was created with Brooks’ research assistants and colleagues at Amherst through Five College Digital Humanities to include many of the photos, maps, documents and side-stories that couldn’t accompany the 448-page print edition.

Brooks, who will take part in a March 14 program at Northampton’s Forbes Library as well as a Historic Deerfield panel discussion sometime in late April, says, “It was really difficult to research and write, to confront this violence. It was painful. But I had to do it because there were things I needed to learn.”

The Leverett author, who’s likely to face the same criticism of revisionism that authors like Howard Zinn and Jill Lapore have, explains, “I don’t want this to be a definitive history of King Philip’s War. What I really want is for this book to raise questions for people. Ideally, people would make connections to issues that are going on now.”

Still, she adds, “I do think we need to learn from this history … about our relationships with people we see as different, and about what our fears of other people’s difference drive us to. That’s a lot of what happens in this war: The English colonists become so fearful of this Indian ‘other’ they’ve created in their minds. By a few months into this war, they want to wipe them out. This is written down.”

Brooks quotes from John Easton, Rhode Island’s Quaker governor at the time, who wrote that the war stemmed from the colonists’ taking of the Indians’ resources and called for halting the conflict and finding a peaceful resolution by considering the native people as human beings.

“What happens when what you want are somebody else’s resources?” Brooks asks. “The image that you create in order to justify your taking of those resources, how far does that go? It’s the Great Beaver story. When you want really badly what somebody else has, and you know it goes beyond your religious and moral values to just take that wholesale, if those people are as human as you are, then what do you do? What happens here is that the colonists bring with them images of savage people, of people who are not civilized, not Christian, people who are racial ‘others,’ they bring with them that idea, they imposed that on the indigenous people, and then they create their own version of indigenous people that justifies tremendous violence. For me a lot of the narratives that come post-war are justifying that violence.”

Stressing the “power dynamics between the native culture and settlers who felt entitled to the lands they’d just discovered,” Brooks calls it “a huge mistake” that King Philip’s War has been interpreted as a clash of two cultures too different to ever be resolved, and points to repeated efforts by native people to show the newcomers how to live in this land as a gesture of peace and diplomacy.

Throughout the indigenous peoples’ long history before settlers had arrived, Brooks says, “They recognized each other as different … so they built up these very intricate political, cultural ceremonial systems for how to get across those differences. Gift-giving was so important here, so they were trying to bring the settlers into that. I think we still have to learn that. There’s a way of living in this land that’s still very present, and native people are still engaging in it today.

“And all of us, we could still have that as a way to bridge the differences that exist between us,” Brooks adds. “It’s not a lesson that was just taught in the past.”

Admitting that she’s “much more cynical, writing this story was brutal,” Brooks says, “This is a rough world we live in, and we still have these legacies with us, and they’re going full stream. I think if we are going to survive and reconstruct selves, then we need to look at different models. Maybe there’s no way anything different was going to happen back then. But I’m still hopeful that something could happen differently now.”

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