1637: Massachusetts Bay
The phrase “God is an Englishman” sums up the prevailing attitude of the churchmen who left England and formed the early colonies on the eastern coast of the “new world.” John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was clear about the reason the English could take over the Indians’ lands: that which is common to all belongs to none. This “savage” people pretended to rule over many lands without title or property.
The Puritans came to build the New Jerusalem. They fled from the king and his bishops, leaving behind taxes and wars, hunger and diseases, and threats of change in the old order. Winthrop, who was a Cambridge lawyer born into a noble family, operated out of the assumption that God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence, had determined that some members of mankind must be rich, some poor, some powerful and some powerless.
In commenting on the devastation of Indian communities by smallpox, Winthrop came up with another assumption about God’s will: Smallpox was sent by God as a method of clearing the land and obliging English colonists to occupy it.
See Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire: Genesis, 220-221
In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, contacts between Europeans and North American Indians were of two types. Expeditions of explorers set out from the newly emerging nation-states of England, France, and Portugal in attempts to match Spain’s stunning successes in Central and South America, and fishing crews hired for merchants sailed from ports on Europe’s Atlantic coast looking for cheap sources of protein.
Later in the sixteenth century, French merchants developed a specialized fur trade with the Algonquin hunters in eastern Canada. As a result, the natives became dependent on a very unpredictable industry, began to compete with each other, and, as in many other places, suffered greatly from exposure to European diseases.
England became the primary colonizer in North America for a variety of reasons. Of the European nations, England was the furthest along in capitalist development. Members of the gentry had bought or leased land from feudal lords, raising crops and/or livestock to sell. As the population increased, smaller producers suffered from competition to the point that they were forced to sell their own labor and become indentured servants or travel to North America and settle as colonizers.
Driven out of England by overpopulation, a shortage of tillable land, growing extremes of wealth and poverty, and the breakdown of effective institutions of social control under a rapidly diversifying and changing economy, they migrated to the “new world” where within a century, due to their presence and attitudes, similar conditions prevailed. “Despite the intentions and beliefs of many participants, then, the effect of colonization had not been to halt or reverse the processes forming pre-industrial England but to carry them across the Atlantic” (Salisbury, 237).
Attitudes of Virginians
Conway Whittle Sams wrote an account of the colonization of Virginia from the point of view of the colonists:
The Conquest of Virginia involves the dealings of Englishmen, who became Virginians, with two inferior races. The country they came to acquire was occupied by the one, and, no sooner had they established a foothold here, then there was imported from Africa another.
…The real object of the colony was to secure for England, and for Protestantism, a part of the New World then being explored, claimed and occupied by other European Powers, that is, by France and by Spain, both of them Catholic Powers….
The colony was conducted in an as orderly a way as possible by persons of the highest character who were at the head of the movement in England…Religion was a vital feature of the Colony, daily morning and evening prayers being regularly held and attended by the Colonists.
With kindly intentions towards the Indians, and with a high purposed before them, abundantly shown by the solemn public statements that were made on the subject, yet, in carrying out the movement, war with the native inhabitants became inevitable, because they would not accept the situation as the English would have them accept it.
Conway Whittle Sams, The Conquest of Viriginia, 5, 15-16
The adverse circumstances experienced by many during the seventeenth century led to the popularity of religious beliefs which elevated family-oriented economic independence to the status of a divine character trait. Puritans viewed their economic and social crises as evidence of the deep sinfulness of the world and they tried to separate themselves from it. The need for hard work and self-discipline in a fiercely competitive, rapidly changing economy (quite different from the seasonal agricultural work of their ancestors) plus the need for certainty as the old order declined gave Puritanism a strong appeal.
Its world view provided economic activities with a spiritual base. A person was “called” to a vocation; fulfilling material goals could at the same time insure a place in heaven. The certainty that they were among the few elect who would be saved by God legitimized Puritans’ individual pursuits and gave them a basis of identity stronger than kinship and geographic ties.
In the 1630s the Archbishop of Canterbury tried to force religious uniformity, in a new phase of the Inquisition. Persecution became an additional motive for migration. Thousands of English Puritans, perceiving themselves as righteous and deprived, hungry for land, desperate for social and cultural order, fled to America.
Indians reacted to their arrival with the goal of maintaining equilibrium and tried to interact as best they could with this new breed of human being. However, the Puritans saw the Indians as not only an obstacle to attaining what they wanted but also as a complete inversion of their ideal world. They turned their quests for land into crusades against the “savages” as they struggled for control over the environment and its inhabitants. Conversion of the natives to Christianity would be an extension of God’s will and glory. The antagonism of settlers toward natives set the stage for the later rise of racism in the society that developed in the “new world.”
Puritans arrive in the “new world”
The New England Puritans gave the concept of “the American can dream” the high visionary meaning it has carried to our own time. To them, and to us, the “discovery of America” became prophecy and promise, “God’s country,” “manifest destiny.”
Other Renaissance explorers and emigrants discovered America as a geographical entity; they put it on the European map of the world. The Puritans discovered America in scripture, precisely as a biblical scholar discovers the meaning of some hitherto obscure text, and they proceeded to put it on the map of sacred history.
America, they explained, was nothing less than the new promised land, held in reserve by God for His latter-day saints. And what of those who were already acting as the stewards of that Promised Land?
The misnomer “Indian” is emblematic of the way language could be used, in defiance of historical fact; to denigrate a host of native peoples, each with distinctive traditions and institutions, as “primitives,” “savages,” “childlike innocents,” and so on. This was the way of all the emigrant groups, including the Puritans. But the Puritans went one crucial step further. They “discovered” in the Indians the antagonists to the new chosen people. For other emigrants, the Indians were cultural inferiors, requiring the white gifts of religion and civilization. For the Puritans they were primarily the villains in a sacred drama….
Charles M. Segal and David C. Stineback, Puritans, Indians, and Manifest Destiny, 16-17
Changes in the Land
American Progress, painted by John Gast is an allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny
In a very real and tangible sense….”New England,” as we know it in history, was “made” when Indian lands were expropriated for use by English settlers. For it was by that process that the land was removed from a “natural” economy, where it was treated as a sacred phenomenon whose powers and gifts were thought to be controlled by supernatural forces, and placed in a nascent capitalist economy where (though hedged in certain respects by the authorities of town, colony, and empire) it became fundamentally a commodity owned by individuals to be bought and sold as they saw fit.
Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence, 239
Preaching to the Indians
Spread the word of your religion,
Convert the whole world if you can,
Kill and slaughter those who oppose you
It’s worth it if you save one man.
Take the land to build your churches,
A sin to tax the house of God,
Take the child while she is supple,
Spoil the mind and spare the rod.
Go and tell the save native
That he must be Christianized.
Tell him, end his heathen workshop
And you will make him civilized.
Like an ever circling vulture,
You descent upon your prey,
Then you pick the soul to pieces
And you watch while it decays.
Go leave us all alone.
Take your white God to your white man,
We’ve a god of our own.
A song by Floyd Westerman in Marxism and Native Americans, 18
Puritans and Indians
Throughout the hemisphere the conquest followed similar patterns. Initial physical attacks against natives were followed by more subtle—but ultimately just as deadly—attacks on their cultures by missionaries. Churches and missions opened the way for other colonizers. They exploited people, divided families, removed children, robbed natural resources, and forced a shift in traditional values.