Welcome to the final week of February’s weekly posts. I’m wrapping up “The Geography of Whiteness” with a story of my own Whiteness and its brush with American history.
It’s winter so the focus is human behavior. It’s also Black History Month, and I’m White. So I’m looking at what it means to be ‘White’ and what is unique about ‘White’ behavior in ‘America’. What is it about the interaction between people and place that has led us here and where do we go from here?
Starting next week, I’ll be reducing the length of weekly posts and reserving the long posts for the end of the month. I ended up having a lot to say about “The Geography of Whiteness” and felt it deserving of more words. March will still be on human behavior, but with a different focus.
As interactors, you’re not only special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey, you’re also members of an attentive community. I welcome your participation. Interplace is a place for people to interact so please leave your comments below. Thanks to you brave souls who have! 🙏🏼
Now let’s go…
I’m a descendant of colonial settler, Jonas Weed. He sailed from England in 1630 aboard the famed Arabella as part of the Winthrop Fleet. They were part of the Great Puritan Migration – a 17th century wave of religious freedom seekers and plantation builders. Before embarking on their journey on March 21, 1630, ship leader, Puritan lawyer, and soon to be Boston Governor, John Winthrop, delivered a sermon at the Holyrood Church in Southampton, England that included this passage:
“We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
Embedded within are five simple words: ‘a city upon a hill’ – the roots of American exceptionalism. Winthrop led 700 people in seven boats across a cold, dark sea. They believed they were chosen by God to plant and propagate plantations and pulpits across a new England. Even in those times, it was well understood that plantations succeeded through expropriation of native land and exploitation of native inhabitants – or ‘savages’ as they called them.
Winthrop’s ‘a city upon a hill’ is a nod to the Christian ‘Sermon on the Mount’. One of the most popular teachings of Jesus Christ, it’s also known as the ‘Ethics of the Kingdom’ and embodies the ethos of Christian righteousness. The sermon was more or less forgotten until another Christian lawyer in Boston yanked them out of history three centuries later. In a 1961 speech to the General Court of Massachusetts – a court that was created just a couple years before the Arabella docked in Boston harbor – John F. Kennedy uttered these words:
“...I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arabella (sic) three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier…We must always consider…that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us."
Then came more eager to stand on that hill:
Ronald Reagan: “I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining city on a hill, as were those long ago settlers.”
Barack Obama, in 2006: “As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched…”
And 2021 in Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb”:
“That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare. It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.”
I inherited more than pride. I inherited a name from Jonas Weed. Who knows what kind of hill he was daring himself to climb as he clambered aboard the Arabella. Was it even his choice? Was he indentured to serve his master or inspired to serve his God? Or perhaps it was by choice or by chance to escape depression and persecution. After all, England had seen repeated years of heavy rains resulting in food shortages by 1629. And in the same year the King dissolved the parliament so he may rule alone. There was good reason to escape.
It was also the year the Massachusetts Bay Company was created by the King — a stock venture created to profit from fish and fur of the woods and sea of a far off colony. Winthrop bought out the early investors, made himself the Governor of the enterprise, and channeled its mission toward a Puritan commonwealth overseas.
JONAS SETTLES DOWN
The Arabella, after an unremarkable journey, docked in Salem on June 13, 1630. Jonas Weed went on to settle Watertown, Massachusetts in 1631 and Wethersfield, Connecticut in 1635. Jonas was born in Wethersfield, England and died in Wethersfield, British Colonial America. He and his wife were the first to sign the registry in the Wethersfield First Church of Christ. It still stands today.
I use the word ‘settle’, but this area was already ‘settled’ by the Podunk people. Podunk, another ugly inheritance, is a disparaging word used today to describe a non-existent place or a place of insignificance. A sad truth given the Podunk tribe seizes to exist today — in part because of my distant Grandfather.
The Podunks weren’t the only Indigenous people living in this area. The Pequots did too. The Pequots were the dominant population in this area with an estimated peak population of 16,000 people. European settlers were encroaching on their land, their food supply, and their immune systems. Indigenous populations had dwindled due to decades of introduced disease. By the 1630’s the Pequots were sensing a power imbalance. The Dutch, French, and British were all competing with the Pequot for fur and food. If they didn’t assert their dominance soon, they’d be outnumbered.
On April 23, 1637, two years after Jonas settled Wethersfield, 200 Pequot warriors raided their homes. They killed up to nine women and men and captured two young girls for ransom. War was declared on the Pequots a week later, making these deaths perhaps the first settler war casualties in America. The raid infuriated the colonists and they wanted revenge. They too wanted to assert their exceptional, God given, dominance.
ROGER MAKES MAKES FRIENDS
There was tension and competition between European settlers too – even among the Puritans. While most settlers were there to convert, expel, or kill the ‘heathen savages’, there were some who sought co-existence. Roger Williams was one. Williams started as a Puritan but then believed Puritanism spread more evil than good. But he remained a religious man and eventually founded America’s first Baptist church.
Mostly, he was a strict separatist who fled to the new world in 1630 seeking religious freedom – and to defend and preach equality and rights of all humans. His unorthodox views were seen as suspect among the Puritans and he was banned from preaching. There were numerous attempts to ship him back to England, but his friend John Winthrop defended him. But by 1635 his luck ran out. The Massachusetts’s court expelled him from their territory:
“Whereas Mr. Roger Williams, one of the elders of the church of Salem, hath broached & divulged diverse new & dangerous opinions, against the authority of magistrates, as also writt lies of defamation, both of the magistrates & churches here, & that before any conviction, & yet mainetaineth the same without retraction, it is therefore ordered, that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks now next ensuing wch if he neglect to perform, it shall be lawful for the Govnr & two of the magistrates to send him to some place out of this jurisdiction, not to return any more without license from the Court.”
He was forced to settle with the nearby Narragansett tribe. He excelled at learning foreign languages at Cambridge and quickly learned their language. He went on to befriend their Chief, Canonicus. He never adopted their clothing style and preferred his British mattress over hay, but these people became his family. Williams defended their way of life and their right to property and came to see their behavior as more ‘Christian’ than the Puritans. He even warned his fellow British that the Indigenous people of this land would be judged more worthy of heaven than they:
“Boast not proud English of thy birth & blood
Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee & All,
As wise, as faire, as strong, as personall.
By natures wrath’s his portion, thine no more
Till grace his soule and thine in Christ restore
Make sure thy second birth, else thou shalt see,
Heaven ope to Indian, but shut to thee.”
Williams also observed that even battles between tribes were not as vicious and bloody as commonly portrayed. He wrote, “Their warres are far less bloudy, and devouring, then the cruell Warres of Europe….seldome an arrow hits.” The major battles he observed were fought on a field that "seldome" resulted "in twenty slain." The battle ‘bloudy’ battle about to commence between colonists and the Pequots provided evidence of this stark, ‘cruell’ contrast.
JOHN SEEKS REVENGE
The Pequots asked the Narragansett to join them in the fight against the British. Williams advised them to remain neutral. The Narragansetts were then approached by the Deputy Governor of Connecticut, John Mason. He was organizing an army of colonists and Indigenous warriors, who saw the Pequots as a common enemy, to join an attack on the Pequots.
Mason amassed 250 tribal warriors and 77 colonial soldiers. Their initial strategy was to minimize casualties while maximizing plunder, but that was soon to be abandoned.
On the predawn morning of May 26, 1637, just three weeks after the Pequot raid on Wethersfield, Mason “rowsed the Men with all expedition, and briefly commended [them]selves and Design to GOD, thinking immediately to go to the Assault.” The men quietly ascended a hill through the woods to the Pequot’s village situated near the Mystic River.
Mason ordered his men to enter the fort entrances when they “heard a Dog bark and an Indian crying Owanux! Owanux! which is Englishmen! Englishmen!” They fired upon the Pequot while they lay sleeping, “We called up our Forces with all expedition, gave Fire upon them through the Pallizado; the Indians being in a dead indeed their last Sleep.”
One of the Captains was confronted, and then gave chase, to a Pequot warrior trying to flee. The Captain, upon his return, decided taking them by sword was futile. So he grabbed a flaming iron from one of Pequot campfires and set a hut ablaze. The British fled from the fort and blocked the entrances as the morning wind blew embers from one dwelling to another. Pequots fleeing for their lives were either shot or stabbed to death.
“The Fire was kindled on the North East Side to windward; which did swiftly over-run the Fort, to the extream Amazement of the Enemy, and great Rejoycing of our selves. Some of them climbing to the Top of the Palizado; others of them running into the very Flames; many of them gathering to windward, lay pelting at us with their Arrows; and we repayed them with our small Shot: Others of the Stoutest issued forth, as we did guess, to the Number of Forty, who perished by the Sword.”
All 80 dwellings were burned and 600-700 Pequots were burned to death over the course of an hour. Seven were captured and as many escaped. The Narragansetts cried, “Mach it, mach it.” Translation: “It is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slays too many.”
Mason, by his recollection, was not responsible for this savage act. It was an act of God. But he deemed it a rejoiceful act, nonetheless:
“Thus were they now at their Wits End, who not many Hours before exalted themselves in their great Pride, threatning and resolving the utter Ruin and Destruction of all the English, Exulting and Rejoycing with Songs and Dances: But GOD was above them, who laughed at his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven” — John Mason
Plymouth founder and governor, William Bradford, describes it like this:
“At this time it was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same; and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud, insulting, and blasphemous an enemy.”
As Indigenous hater and Puritan minister Cotton Mather later said, “This day we brought six hundred Indian souls to hell.”
John Mason was rewarded an abundance of land for what he did. Including the 600 acre Mason’s Island at the mouth of the Mystic River which remained in his family for 250 years.
The site of this Pequot Massacre is now a nature preserve sardonically named — Peace Sanctuary. Next to it is a trailer park filled with an unnervingly similar collection of rectangularly shaped dwellings. Nearby, where hundreds of human beings were massacred, is a nursing home and healthcare center.
AMERICANS SEEK EXEMPTION
This event marked a turning point in Indigenous relations in the colonies. It also became a template for how white settler colonialists asserted their power in the relentless quest for future empire expansion. As settlers push west Indigenous conflicts increased. White settlers bonded in their shared loathing of Indigenous people. As early colonial historian, Patrick Griffin says, “Indians existed as cultural glue, since the hatred of them was fast becoming a basis for order.”
Violence by white people against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as ‘a basis of order’ continues to this day. For many it’s a source of pride.
“The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages. … American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori,—in each case the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid deep the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people.” — Teddy Roosevelt
Roger Williams was right about Puritanism leading to evil. Williams was also right to learn from the thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge about how people should interact with place. Despite their minority populations they remain stewards of the majority of our biodiversity.
“Instead of marginalizing or overlooking these communities, our solutions to climate change should put Indigenous Peoples’ rights and expertise at the forefront. Though they comprise just 5 percent of the global population, Indigenous Peoples safeguard approximately 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.” — Rachel McMonagle, Landesa
American Exceptionalism is a morally bankrupt theory. A weary claim that’s been defamed. Caught in a lie, we now rely on exemption, coercion, and denial. All along we had it all wrong, redemption is what we should codify.
I think Jonas would agree. Roger Williams sure would. I wonder what Jonas Weed thought of Roger Williams. John Winthrop sympathized with Williams, maybe Jonas did too. Maybe he believed as Williams did that,
“…the most high and sovereign God and Creator hath not made them inferior to Europeans. . . . Nature knows no difference between Europeans and Americans in blood, birth, bodies, &c. God having of one blood made all mankind,. . . The same Sun shines on a Wilderness that doth on a garden..."
Maybe Jonas could see that Williams' words would echo and inspire a century hence, out of the feathered quill Jefferson clinched, as he penned the Declaration of Independence:
"All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."
And maybe Jonas took to heart the words from a sermon Winthrop delivered on the Arabella called “A Model of Christian Charity”:
“…we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.”
But only if, as Amanda Gorman suggests, we dare.