Marguerite and the Isle of Demons

In 1999 I bought some screenwriting software and messed around with the format and structure of writing a scvript. I actually wrote a full screenplay based on the story of Hugh Glass, the frontiersman who was mauled by a bear and left to die in the wilderness in the 1800s. Yes, I felt a twinge of woulda-coulda-shoulda when The Revenant told that tale 15 years later and won an Oscar, but being a procrastinator, I thought I’d share another amazing story from history which I’ll predict someone will actually make into a flick one day.

On my current literary bender of devouring Samuel Eliot Morison’s works, I have been reading his magnum opus, The European Discoverers of America. In his accounts of the French voyages of discovery of Canada he dropped in the tale — perhaps apocryphally — of Marguerite de la Rocque and her romantic ordeal on the Ile de Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.

First a little back story. The French, envious of Spanish wealth from Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and aware the English were exploring the coasts of Newfoundland, financed the voyages of Jacques Cartier who over the course of three voyages, discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and explored it deep to the west as far as the modern city of Quebec in the search of the elusive northwest passage to the Indies. Cartier returned to Versailles with captured Iroquois natives and tales of gold to be found in the mythical  “Kingdom of Saguenay.” While his samples of ore were merely Fools Gold, or iron pyrite, and his Iroquois novelties all too willing to bullshit the court on his behalf, Cartier’s tall tales of Canada’s bounty inspired a mad rush among the French aristocracy to fit out their own ships and sail west to stake their claims in the New World.

One of those fortune-seekers was Jean-Francois Roberval, a French nobleman and favorite of the King of France, who set sail for Canada in 1542 with a crew that included a young woman, Marguerite de la Roque, and her lady’s maid, Damienne. It’s unclear what exactly the relationship was between Roberval and Marguerite. Some historians speculate they were uncle and niece. Others speculate they were brother and sister. But it appears they had a shared interest in a great deal of land in Perigord and Languedoc and she was “co-seigeurness” of Pairpont with him. Whatever the relationship, it was personal and perhaps even financial and tied to some big land holdings which were the basis of noble wealth in those days.

Why a young woman would get on a ship with her maid and sail to a savage shore is remarkable to speculate about, but according to Morison, Cartier did a masterful job in whipping up Canada-fever among the aristocracy and for a woman to embark on such a voyage is probably tantamount to being the first female astronaut to walk on the moon.

During the trans-Atlantic voyage Marguerite fell in love with a young man — not a member of the common crew, but some dashing adventurer who doubtlessly was high-borne and also keen on finding adventure and freedom from the tired restrictions of 15th century France. The two lovers were caught in flagrente delicto by the Calvinist Captain Roberval, who was enraged by her promiscuity, doubtlessly ashamed to have it openly known on the very close confines of a small ship in the middle of the Atlantic that his chaste “ward” had sinned under his very nose in some dark sail locker.

Roberval vowed to put Marguerite ashore at the first opportunity along with her maid Damienne, who in the words of Morison, played the classic role  all good lady’s maids are expected to play as she tried to conceal her mistresses’ amorous indiscretions. Eventually land was sighted, a desolate island at the northern tip of Newfoundland at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This island, the “Ile de Demons” is a bit mythical and appears and disappears on antique charts, but according to modern locations may be Quirpon Island near the site of L’Anse aux Meadows, where archaeologists found evidence of the first Viking settlements dating back to 1,000 CE.

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By Johann Ruysch († 1533), scanned by Kimon Berlin, user:Gribeco – scanned from Thomas Suárez, Shedding the Veil, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1301911

Now for the good stuff, paraphrasing Morison’s account, here goes:

Roberval the Calvinist prude, total tyrant of the ship (as all good captain’s are expected to be tyrants), anchors off the rocky shore of the Ile de Demons and puts Marguerite and Damienne ashore with a musket, some provisions, and his utter and complete scorn. Picture the scene of somber shame and terror as the two women are put into the boat and rowed ashore in the ship’s pinnace to a forbidding shore dense with pines and dark shadows.jean-franc3a7ois_de_la_roque_de_roberval Roberval doubtlessly pronounces some stern sentence on them from the poop deck as the women are banished to their fate, invoking his Huguenot God and making pious imprecations against fornicators and peccant girls of loose morals.

Some historians speculate Roberval was motivated by more than prudishness and a wounded ego when he sent Marguerite ashore, loyal lady’s maid by her side. Indeed he may have benefited from marooning the young noblewoman because he could have returned to France as the sole Lord of the lands he once shared title with the doomed girl. Whatever the motivation, Roberval was wiping his hands of her and with a curt command to weigh anchor and sail away, the two women were left alone on the wet shore looking out for the last time at their only connection to civilization and life.

Aha, but the young swain, hitherto concealed, his identity protected by his lover Marguerite, leaps on deck, muskets, ammunition, and food in a sack, and with a flourishing bow, gracefully swan dives off the taffrail into the cold, testicle-shrinking waters of the sea and swims ashore to share his fate in the arms of his abandoned lover.

Roberval flicks his teeth with some gallic display of disgusted indifference and with a fey motion with the back of his hand, commands the ship’s bosun to weigh anchor and leave the scandalous trio to their fate.

And then the ship is gone.

Let’s let Morison tell the rest of the story:

“Marguerite fared well enough for a time. Until winter set in, the lovers lived an idyllic life. The gentleman built a cabin for his mistress and her maid, chopped wood, caught fish, and shot wild fowl; but before winter ended, he died. Marguerite, unable to dig a grave in the frozen ground, guarded his body in the cabin until spring, to protect it from wild animals.

“In the ninth month of exile a child was born to her and promptly died. Another winter passed, and Damienne died, leaving Marguerite alone. The intrepid demoiselle gathered enough food to keep alive and defended herself not only against bears (she killed three, one “white as an egg”). but against spirits of another world. Demoniac voices shrieked about her cabin, howled the louder when she fired a gun, but were still when she read passages from a New Testament which she brought ashore.”

In  the early spring of 1544 the smoke from Marguerite’s fire was spotted by some passing French fisherman. They landed, found her emaciated and “in rags” according to Morison, and brought her back home to France where she became a celebrity sensation and the personal pet of the Queen of Navarre who made Marguerite a cause celebre and post child for piety. Roberval? Not a %&$* was given and met his maker during some Huguenot purge.

Maybe it’s me, but I’d see that movie.

Columbus Day

Samuel Eliot Morison has long been one of my favorite historians, coming into my life in the summer of 1978 when I worked as an intern at Houghton-Mifflin in Boston and walked to work every day up and down the Commonwealth Avenue mall through the Public Gardens and across Boston Common to the publishing house’s offices on Beacon Hill. The mall had a new statue of Morison between Exeter and Fairfield Streets — a bronze of him sitting on a seaside boulder in oilskins, binoculars around his neck, gazing out to an imaginary sea. Over the years I’ve read most of his work (with more to go), driven out of my studies in American maritime history in college, but also because of his remarkably fluent voice and style. Morison taught history at Harvard his entire life, was a rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and wrote the official history of the navy in World War II, but he is best known for his writings on Christopher Columbus, which under the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” won him the first for two Pulitzer prizes for history .

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That book, which I strongly recommend reading, was an account of Morison’s meticulous primary research into Columbus’ life, his four voyages of discovery to the New World in the last decade of the 1400s, and a dispelling of the “flat earth” myth which had flourished in the minds of school children such as myself thanks to the fictional liberties taken by Washington Irving. Morison is an excellent historian, relying on first hand observation and primary research in the archives of Spain, Portugal and Italy, but also unique in that he was every inch a sailor himself, and took the time to re-sail Columbus’ meanderings from Spain through the Caribbean  to understand the challenges of navigating into the unknown with only the crudest rudiments of navigation  and understanding.

Columbus, in Morison’s estimation, was a pious, complicated man driven by dreams of wealth and fame, but also a deep piety and love of God. The Genoese sailor never let go of his dreams of sailing west to the Indies, convinced of his theories due to misconceptions and errors which did not include any superstitions about sailing off the edge of the map.

This holiday began as an official holiday in 1906, but has been out of favor and rarely observed except in places where there is a strong Italian-American community like New York, New Haven and Boston. It, like Thanksgiving, has been revised by contemporary critics to an opportunity to discredit the noble of myths of discovery with the brutal realities of indigenous genocide. Doubtlessly, (and Morison was aware of that brutal truth when he wrote Admiral of the Ocean Seas) Columbus’s discovering of Hispaniola and the establishment of the Spanish capital of the New World there, led to one of the most massive examples of genocide in world history, setting the foundations of misery for that island that persists today in the struggles in Haiti.

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Although Columbus himself doesn’t emerge as a cold, rapacious villain in Morison’s account — nothing close to the subsequent horrors of Cortez and Pizaro (who accompanied Columbus on subsequent voyages following the first of 1492) — he does stand as one of the great sailors in history because of his voyage home in the doughty Nina to deliver the news to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of his discoveries.

Columbus was an excellent sailor, with years of experience under the tutelage of the voyaging Prince Henry of Portugal in that sea-faring nation’s explorations of the west coast of Africa. His first voyage, consisting of the fabled fleet of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, was undertaken in proven ships which he modified to take advantage of the prevailing trade winds he expected to encounter in his crossing of the Atlantic. He lost not a single man during the voyage — but did lose the Santa Maria on Christmas Eve, 1492 on a reef off the northern arm of present day Haiti near a tragic settlement he would call “Navidad.” Leaving a contingent of sailors and caballeros at Navidad after constructing a block house from the salvaged wreckage of the Santa Maria, Columbus sailed home for Spain in the Nina.

As he approached Europe that February he encountered a brutal storm, a perfect storm, which Morison is able to recreate in amazing detail from Columbus’ own ships logs and the insights of modern meteorologists. Columbus survived a storm on a furious scale which would have destroyed a modern fleet, limping ashore in Portugal under a wisp of a remaining sail against all odds. Not only his skill — and religious promises by him and the pious crew to go on pilgrimages of thanks should God spare them — but the almost magical luck of the Nina stand out as the heroes of Morison’s account. I had never been aware of that aspect of the Columbus story until reading Morison, and now would now place his voyage home in the tiny Nina in the pantheon of epic feats of seamanship that  include Bligh’s voyage in an open boat across 4,000 miles of the south Pacific ocean and Slocum’s first solo circumnavigation in the Spray.

So tomorrow, this Columbus Day of 2016, a day of mourning for many, a holiday barely honored anymore at the last long weekend of the Fall, “National Indigenous Peoples Day” on some campuses, I chose to remember the scene on the poop deck of the Nina somewhere north of the Azores in February 1493, fighting for its life, with the Admiral of the Ocean Seas standing resolute before his terrified crew begging their God Almighty to deliver them onto dry land after a voyage of discovery Morison declares every bit as significant as man’s landing on the moon.

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Chistopher Columbus, Wooster Square, New Haven, CT

 

 

What I’m Reading: The Innovators

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

 

I have succumbed to the world of books-on-tape and been using the 90 mile/2x daily commute from Cape Cod to Burlington to do more than listen to NPR and curse my hollow, rat-on-a-wheel existence. I’ve been a fan since my commute to and from Manhattan for Eastman Advisors, but perhaps Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t the wisest first choice for an automotive literary experience. In 2001, when I briefly did the same commute to McKinsey & Co’s short-lived TomorrowLab, I listened to lectures from The Learning Company, thinking I was being super efficient and relentlessly self-improving like Dr. Evil’s father the baker who claimed to have invented the question mark.

Audible is definitely making the commute a lot more enjoyable. I’ve tried dictating into a voice recorder and plugging the results into Nuance software’s speech recognition software, but I can’t compose via dictation and feel like an utter asshole in bumper-to-bumper holding a little red Sony recorder under my chin and pretending I am composing literary genius (note to self, search to see if any significant piece of literature has ever been dictated).

So far this fall I’ve listened to The Map Thief; Peter Thiel’s From Zero to One; and Chris Anderson’s Free, along with a steady diet of podcasts, usually Drupal and open source related. I was always impressed by the anecdote that George Gilder, the Forbes columnist and newsletter writer wrecked a couple cars out in the Berkshires because he was fond of driving around listening to technical lectures and proceedings from the IEEE and other deep-geek gatherings. The story, unconfirmed, was he put a car or two in the ditch because he’d get so wrapped up in talks about erbium-doped fiber amplifiers.

Now I’m into Walter Issacson’s breezy history of the computer, Internet, and digital revolution and I’m liking it, even if everything is old news because I’ve worked in the industry since the early 1980s and have read pretty much all the histories and biographies of the computer age. Walter’s biography of Steve Jobs was a huge bestseller and I enjoyed it very much as it taught me two things about Jobs which I did not know before: Jobs didn’t flush toilets and he banned Powerpoint.  In Innovators, Issacson does a fine job of keeping the history from falling into the rat hole of theoretical science, injects some good human drama and tales of eccentricity, and connects it all together in a way that a Millenial obsessed with hooking up on Tindr and managing their social networks might actually pause and pay some respect to the geniuses (mostly men, mostly working during the Great Depression) who invented the vacuum tube powered 50-ton monster computers that got things rolling.

He begins with the tale of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, a passionate mathematician who is regarded as the first computer programmer because of her work with Charles Babbage during his development of the mechanical calculator, the Analytical Engine during the first half of the 19th Century. Then a leap to the second half of the century, and the mechanization of the US Census by IBM’s early founder Herman Hollerith (this cutting down the analysis of the census from an eight year manual process to just one); and then to 1937 — the year it all came together in the US, England and Germany for a bunch of unconnected inventors and scientists who looked at the technology available to them and managed, through a combination of vacuum tubes, hardwired circuits, electric-mechanical relays, “memories” made out of rotating tin cans and lots of scrounging, to independently invent variations on what are now regarded as the first working computers.

There’s something about listening to the excitement caused by the Mother of All Demos (Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration of the first mouse, graphical user interface, and network in 1968), the founding of Intel by Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, the impact the MITS Altair had on the Bay Area’s hacker/maker subculture, the development of the Internet’s protocols out of ARPANET…..all familiar stories, but very chilling when told through an Android phone mounted on the dashboard of a car, a pocket computer with more storage and power that ever could have been conceived of and yet…..

That future was always in the minds of people like Vannevar Bush — the man who forged the collaboration between the military, academic and industrial research during World War II and was the “Scientist-in-Chief,” advising presidents from FDR through Eisenhower: he described the personal computer he called a “Memex” in a famous essay published by The Atlantic, “As We May Think.” Alan Kay at Xerox PARC and his vision of the DynaBook in the early 70s. Ada Lovelace speculating in the 1820s that someday there would be machines that could help create art.

The theme that fascinates me — a theme emerging from listening to Chris Anderson, Peter Thiel, and Issacson — is that the greatest invention in all of the Information Age is debatable, but the one that is most intangible is the way “innovation” is defined and happens. I personally detest the way “innovation” is tossed around by buzzwordists along with “impactful” and “pivot” like verbal styrofoam peanuts; but a tangible definition and set of conditions conducive to it occurring is coming together in my mind. Hence, Churbuck’s Theory of Innovation:

  1. Those who talk about innovation generally don’t understand it.
  2. Innovation is not a synonym for creativity or discovery — creativity and inspiration are required, but the words are not synonyms. Galileo didn’t innovate his heliocentric view of the universe — he proved through a telescope that the planets orbit the sun (and pissed off the Church in the process).
  3. Innovation strictly defined in my mind is the commercialization of invention. Bear with me, for this is the fine distinction between discovering some new truth: “Silicon doped with impurities will become a semiconductor” that’s a discovery, an invention.  Putting a logical circuit on a base of doped silicon by printing a pattern of conductive lines is an invention and can be patented. Realizing you can cram all the logical functions required by a computer’s central processing unit onto a single chip and then selling the hell out of them (as Intel did) I argue is an innovation. Science leads to discoveries. Innovation applies those discoveries to products or processes.
  4. Innovation is an “aha” moment to be sure, but it usually doesn’t happen alone, by a lone genius in a garage, but in a group of collaborators in the right combination of environment and management structures. Flat organizations based on a meritocracy are far more conducive to innovation than old command-and-control structure. Open sharing of invention and discoveries is the fuel for innovation — innovation is derived and borrowed from many sources and crushed by patents and secrecy.

I highly recommend the Thiel book — his view of what it takes to build a company, as well as Issacson’s — it’s more about the management and culture breakthroughs than anything else. Flat organizations, rewarding individual contributors with a piece of the action, and leadership that makes decisions and shepherds projects towards clear goals while deflecting distractions are as important as any factor, technical or creative. Issacson provides an excellent example: Texas Instruments took the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs and made the first transistor radios — reducing a bulky device that sat on a table and required tubes to a form factor the size of a stack of index cards. As luck would have it, the first transistor radio coincided with the emergence of rock-and-roll, and for the first time teenagers could listen, in privacy, to the music their parents hated on the living room Philco. The invention — the Regency TR-1 — was the innovation of a new “use case,” the transistor itself was introduced to the public consciousness, and the result was as profound (if not more so) than the iPod 50 years later.

It’s a long way of my saying, it’s good to stop and take stock of the invention that surrounds us and realize that in a very short span of time — 50 years essentially — we’re gone from “Shake Rattle and Roll” in our pockets, to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on our dashboards.

 

 

 

A Sunday Stroll in Cotuit

I’m trying to walk off some weight and hit the road on Sunday to take a stroll through Mosswood Cemetery and around Eagle Pond. Winter is the best time for marching around in the woods. No leaves have sprouted to obscure the views and few if any people are out on a grey afternoon. First stop was the hill atop Old Shore Road at the bend on Putnam Avenue. In behind the old Ropes property is this sad barn. The cupola crashed in during Sandy in the fall of 2012. A tarp was hauled over the hole, and you can see some strapping on what remains, so who knows, it may get rebuilt or it may vanish like so many other old sheds and barns around the village.

The Ropes Barn

Onwards to Mosswood Cemetery,  to look at the Churbuckian headstone, all covered with lichens, the plot littered with winter’s blown sticks. Always strange to think that my name will get stuck there in the ground some day. Only my grandfather Henry is actually buried there. Grandmother Nellie and my father were cremated, so all that remains of them are the stones. I reminded myself for the umpteenth time to visit the cemetery office and see what the deal is with the family plot.  It’s interesting to see the changes to the cemetary and the graves that get extraordinary attention, with little solar powered lights, bunches of plastic flowers, ornate laser inscribed tombstones with pictures and poetry. Nothing like the old Yankee practice of sticking up a name, a birthday and death date and then moving on.

I went up the hill to the old section, where the 19th century family plots are. The Chatfields and Fishers and Fields and Hodges — the old unmet names of great-aunts and uncles gathered together. The oldest stones are pretty beat up, with some interesting information that belies the nautical past. “Died in Rio de Janiero” or “Drowned, Cotuit Bay 1842.” One of the oldest stones is of one of my oldest ancestors, Azubah Handy, wife of Bethuel Handy, mother of Bethuel Handy Jr., the Cotuit whaler who spent a winter stranded in the Siberian ice of the Sea of Okhotsk until my great-great grandfather Tom Chatfield could sail back from San Francisco and rescue his father-in-law.

 Azubah was one of the first to be buried in the cemetery (1819) (I don’t know where the colonial graves of Cotuit are). Her inscription is one of the most wordy in Mosswood, a poem that was oft quoted to me as a kid:

My bosom friend come here and see
Where lays the last remains of me
When I the debt of nature paid
A burying yard for me was made.
Here lays the body of your bride
The loving knot is now untied
A loving husband you have been,
To me the dearest of all men.
Husband and children here I lay
Stamp on your minds my dying day
Come often here and take a view
Where lays the one that loved you.”

Onwards to the gate in the fence between the boneyard and Bell Farm, the old turkey farm that was nearly turned into a subdivision in the 1980s before being saved by the Barnstable Land Trust and preserved as a gorgeous meadow with my favorite tree in all of Cotuit.

Then out of the meadow and into the woods where the box turtles live and risk the walk across busy Putnam, remembering the old Bell Farm barn with the roof that was painted with “GREEN ACRES” in homage to a television series from the 1960s that had something to do with a Hungarian countess (Zsa Zsa Gabor) living on a hillbilly farm. The roof of the barn in the TV show was used in the title, and some vandal wit decided to paint the abandoned barn so everyone driving into Cotuit would catch a glimpse. Every so often the owner of the barn would pay someone to paint the shingles black, which was tantamount to erasing a blackboard for the next vandals to climb up there and do some nocturnal graffiti.

Eventually the place was knocked down and now the village has a great meadow.

Anyway, down the trail into the woods and over the planked bridge over Little River, one of Cotuit two “rivers” as the Cape is fond of calling it’s glacial streams Rivers in lieu of having anything truly big and wide and flowing. (the other river being the Santuit River). Little River runs from Lovell’s Pond in Newtown, the northernmost part of Cotuit adjacent to Santuit. A pretty little pond that is stocked with trout by the state and has one of the town’s fresh water beaches. I’ve never seen any evidence of Little River other than its delta on Handy’s Point into the bay, the glimpse next to Bell Farm, and a pool in back of my cousin’s workshop a little further to the north. I’m sure it was a herring run at one point, probably holding smelt too, but the cranberry industry killed off most of the runs when the bogs dammed up the flow and diverted the water to flood the cranberry vines.

I walked around Eagle Pond at a fast pace, working up enough of a sweat to need to unzip my jacket. I popped back out on Little River Road and followed it to one of Cotuit’s nicest little neighborhoods, home to the Cotuit Oyster Company, and Handy’s Point, the promontory where my oldest Cape Cod ancestors once lived, having come to Cotuit in the late 1600s from Mattapoisett to build ships. I’ll scan some of the old black and white photos eventually, but Little River, also known as the Inner Harbor, was a bit of a separate village within a village in the 18th and 19th centuries, connected to Cotuitport by the Old Post Road, but separated by Little River. According to Chatfield’s reminiscences, he left for a Pacific whaling voyage with his wife and young family living in the Handy home on Handy’s Point, but his wife Florrie, isolated from the village by the river, sold the place and moved the clan into the village center. On his return three years later he rushed home to the old place, only to find the family gone. He hitched a ride into town on a wagon and was pointed to his new home in the center. Shame, it is a pretty piece of waterfront and in the 19th century was the home of Mark Anthony DeWolfe Howe, a prominent Boston editor and winner of the Pulitzer prize. That house has been reskinned a few times over the year and now looks like the typical non-Cape wedding cake temple to the gods of plate glass and rococo railings, faux widow’s walks, and brass lanterns with plastic adirondack chairs that no one sits in arranged in a row on the Chem-lawned grass.

One big hurricane and the place will be underwater. There was a reason the oldtimers considered waterfront living to be a questionable thing, and I suspect the Chatfield-Handy exodus from Handy’s Point to the village center was viewed as a climb up the social ladder, just as getting out of town in the 1950s to live in suburban Boston was viewed as a good thing by my grandparents.

I walked down the beach, past the pissed off “PRIVATE BEACH! NO CHAIRS!” signs — one of the “signs of the times” of modern Cotuit and the Hedge Fundification of the waterfront that has brought us evil looking security cameras and warnings to keep moving — and around the peat bank to the terminus of Little River. Some old pilings give proof of an old bridge there, but, alas, I had to ford it Taras Bulba-style, and wound up with a wet leg.

 

The Mashpee Woodlot Revolt of 1833 – part IV

(continued from part III)

The woodlots of Mashpee were mostly probably near the Santuit River in the immediate vicinity of Reverend Fish’s parsonage which abutted Santuit less than a mile south of the Trout Mound grave. Given the need to haul the cordwood to Cotuit Bay for shipment to Nantucket,  and the arrangement which permitted the Reverend Fish to lease logging rights to help defray his living expenses and the costs of the Indian Meetinghouse, one can assume the location of the woodlot at the center of this story of rebellion and nullification was somewhere near the current intersection of Routes 28 and 130 near the historical center of Wampanoag life near the nexus of the herring run and Santuit Pond.  The lots were worked by two brothers, Joseph and William Sampson, sons of Squire Josiah Sampson, the landowner who built “Sampson’s Folly” on the Old Kings Road and owned the grist mill on the Santuit River near the site of Maushop Stables, a horse farm and equestrian center near greens and fairways of the modern Willowbend golf course. The Sampsons were Cotuit gentry, an old colonial family intermarried with the Crockers, perhaps the oldest and most venerable clan in colonial Santuit. They were landowners, and Sampson’s Island, the sand spit at the head of Cotuit Bay is named for them.

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The Sampson brothers probably had a crew of men, perhaps even Wampanoags, to help them clear, cut, and stack the scrub oak and pine. Oxen were the preferred beast of burden on Cape Cod, so one can picture a group of men, in shirtsleeves on a humid early summer day, toiling in the shady woods with the back breaking task of loading chopped piles of wood onto wagons for the two mile trip down a sandy Main Street to the piers around Cotuit’s Hooper’s Landing. It would have been of no surprise to the Sampsons or any white man living in the area, that the tribe was agitated and looking for a confrontation.  In fact, Apess wrote afterwards the Sampsons “were known to have vowed to disregard the Mashpee’s declarations” to stay out of  Mashpee. The events of July 1, 1833, a deadline declared by Apess and the tribe in their grievances were foretold and to be expected: the Reverend Fish’s panicked missive to the Governor, the shrill attention paid to the affair in the Barnstable Patriot, and the fact that most of the congregation in the “Indian” meetinghouse were white parishioners from Santuit and Cotuit doubtlessly made the Wampanoag’s growing unrest a topic of hot discussion and the source of great fear. The events that took place that Monday morning had been set into motion months before.

It began when Apess went for a “walk” in the woods that morning. The Sampsons and two other men were loading wood onto a wagon. Doubtlessly they had been working the lot for sometime, the sounds of axes and saws and their labor announcing their intention for sometime, so while Apess’ account of the events makes it appear it was a chance encounter, on may assume he was out looking for trouble at a known location of white incursion.

Apess confronted the four whites, told them to unload the wagons and leave, and when they refused, he left to gather some support, returning soon thereafter with eight Wampanoag men.

No punches were thrown or weapons brandished. There is no record of a fight or assault of any kind and the confrontation ended with the departure of the whites from Mashpee back over the Santuit River to Cotuit. And so ended one of the first acts of peaceful civil disobedience by a native tribe in the history of the United States, an act made by one of the first tribes to be subjugated, defeated and assimilated by the whites, a precursor to decades of rebellion, atrocity and contempt between other tribes as the country expanded west to find its manifest destiny and uprooted one tribe after another. Wounded Knee, Little Big Horn, the Trail of Tears … what happened in the woods that morning was perhaps the first and most overlooked statement of independence and revolt by a native tribe in the two hundred year history of white/Indian relations.

As Apess and the Wampanoags made their stand, Governor Lincoln had been roused by the Reverend Fish’s panicked missive and sent a personal emissary, one Josiah Fiske, a member of the Governor’s Council, to Mashpee to investigate. Fiske arrived the following day, July 2, 1833 and spread the word that he wanted to meet with the tribe on Wednesday the 3rd. Fiske carried instructions from the Governor to “confine your actions to the application of the civil power…the Sheriff will, with your advice, call out the posse comitatus, and should there be reasons to fear the efficiency of this report, I will be present personally, to direct any military requisitions.”

Governor Lincoln was on the verge of sending in the militia to quell the Wampanoag rebellion.

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Governor Levi Lincoln

No one showed up to Fiske’s meeting. In a classic power play, the tribe refused to acknowledge Fiske and instead, the president of the tribe, Daniel Amos,delivered to Fiske an invitation  to meet the tribe at the meetinghouse. Ironically, the tribe, so alienated from the historic building given to them by Richard Bourne, a church that had turned its back on them and become a place of worship for Cotuit’s whites, didn’t have a key to their own meetinghouse and had to break in to open the door.

Fiske arrived at the meeting with the sheriff of Barnstable County, John Reed, in a display of legal force. Reed told the tribe they were breaking the law and Apess indignantly replied: “…the laws ought to be altered without delay, that it was perfectly manifest they were unconstitutional; and that, even if they were not so, there was nothing in them to authorize the white inhabitants to act as they had done.”

What Apess declared was the very contemporary concept of “nullification” that had been sweeping the political debate in the nation’s capital. Students of early American History know a central issue was the definition of federal versus state rights and striking a balance between local and central rule. In South Carolina, perhaps the most fervent hotbed of states rights, the US Senator John C. Calhoun had lobbied vigorously in Congress to shift power from the federal government back to the states, and the South Carolina legislature has passed an “Ordinance of Nullification” declaring some pernicious and unpopular federal tariffs to be unconstitutional. Apess seized on this political concept of “nullification” and afterwards, in his account of the Woodlot Revolt, referred to it as an act of nullification by the Wampanoags, essentially a rejection of the concept that Mashpee and its natives were subject to the laws of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Nullification, in the context of the events of 1833, was a statement of sovereign status, in essence declaring the “plantation of Marshpee” to be its own political entity, an “island” ruled by its people, and not the laws of those towns and counties and state that surrounded it like an ocean of American regulations.

Nullification for the Wampanoags was nothing less than a declaration that they rejected the paternal overseer system, rejected the authority of Harvard College to select its minister, and that they were going to revert to the intentions of Richard Bourne in declaring Mashpee to be an autonomous place owned by Wampanoags, governed by Wampanoags, and free from the rule of American law.

Whatever the eloquent Pequot activist said on July 4, 1833 to Fiske and Sheriff Reed, it didn’t matter. Apess was arrested on the spot by Reed and hauled off to jail in Barnstable village where he was arraigned on charges of inciting a riot and trespassing.  Fiske immediately wrote the Governor that the arrest “had the desired effect” and that the rebellion was crushed.  He described Apess’ arrest: “The Indians seemed to have forgotten for a moment that they had muskets with them, and looked with perfect amazement at the sheriff when he had taken their champion from the Moderator’s seat in the meetinghouse and conducted him with great dignity to a seat in his carriage at the door.”

Apess was released on bail after a few nights in jail and returned to Mashpee. The whites in Cotuit and throughout the Cape were not pleased that he was free. Apess wrote: ”

Apess on the white reaction: “They bellowed like mad bulls and spouted like whales mortally gored by the harpoon, I do not think the figure of speech would be too strong. There was a great deal of loose talk and a pretty considerable uproar.”

No one expected that Apess would be able to keep up his agitation for long, and certainly no one expected a white man to come to his defense. But one brilliantly did, a Cape Cod native and attorney, Benjamin F. Hallett. Born in Barnstable, educated at Brown, Hallet studied the law and began a career as a liberal journalist in Providence, the progressive traditional refuge of liberalism and tolerance founded by Roger William in reaction to the tyrannical strictures of the old witch burning Puritans. Hallett went on to be editor of the Boston Advocate and the Boston Daily Advertiser this was the golden age of very politically biased newspapers and Hallett’s were definitely far to the left, presaging the abolitionist movement blossoming among the intellectual Brahmins of Boston and Concord. An active Democrat, Hallett was anti-Masonic and very outspoken. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress later in his career, and eventually was appointed the United Stated District Attorney for Massachusetts by President Franklin Pierce.

hallett
Benjamin Hallett

Apess could not have asked for a better defender than Hallett. Not only was Hallett a Cape Codder, he was a skilled and excellent litigator backed by the power of his own newspaper. Hallett made Apess famous among the abolitionists of Boston, rallying to the Pequot minister’s defense the sympathies of what would become the most disruptive political force in the mid-1800s. Hallett defended Apess on the charges, had them dismissed, but promptly took the case further by filing legislation on Beacon Hill to resolve the status of the tribe once and for all. He argued:

  1. The Mashpee Wampanoags never consented to the white’s “guardian” system that took control of their finances and affairs via the board of overseers.
  2. The actions of the whites towards the Wampanoags, beginning with the formation of the plantation by Bourne, and then thereafter, respected the Wampanoag’s superior title to the land. This was key in that the English legal system cherished the concept of private property and deeds, something utterly foreign to the Wampanoags but which they were blessed with by the foresight of Bourne in creating and deeding to them the lands of Mashpee for their own use and not the use or sale to the whites.
  3. Finally, Hallett seized on the fact that there was no treaty in place between the whites and the Wampanoags as was the case with other tribes in the mid- and far-western parts of the country. Because there was no treaty defining their status, the Wampanoags — Hallett argued — they remained a sovereign nation subject to no white laws or taxation.

Accompanied by Apess, Joseph Amos and Issac Combs, Hallett went to the state house in Boston to make his case for Wampanoag independence. The legislature agreed and in March 1834, the legislature abolished the board of overseers, appointed a one-person “commissioner” to act at the State’s liason with the tribe, and refused to intervene with the religious issues defined by the situation concerning Phineas Fish and his “employer:” Harvard College. Harvard’s President Josiah Quincy dispatched the Reverend James Walker to travel to Mashpee and report on the spiritual situation. Apess, for reasons unknown, renounced his Methodist ordination and started his own “Free and United Church” while Blind Joe Amos continued to lead the popular Baptist Congregation and Phineas Fish muddled along with his all white Congregationalists who raised the funds to build him a church of his own in Santuit (it isn’t clear if Fish ever preached another sermon after the July 4, 1833 meeting in the Indian Meetinghouse that resulted in Apess’ arrest, but he eventually moved into his own church within Santuit proper.

Harvard’s emissary, Reverend Walker, wrote in a report entitled “Facts in Regard to the Difficulties at Marshpee” that Apess was “now understood to be rapidly losing the Indians’ confidence and not without good reason.”

The Aftermath

While all but forgotten until Apess’ memoirs were republished in the 1990s, the Mashpee Woodlot Revolt stands as a significant milestone in native-white relations in America. The Wampanoags enjoyed a period of self-rule until 1870 when the tribe eventually petitioned the Commonwealth to incorporate Mashpee as a town, a controversial move sought by non-Wampanoag spouses who wanted the same rights they had enjoyed outside of the plantation such as the vote. Harvard stopped the practice of sending ministers to Mashpee. Fish moved out of town and continued to minister to his flock in his new church in Santuit.

Apess? Well he did indeed fall out of favor in Mashpee — he was an outsider and while part-Pequot was not a Wampanoag. In 1838 all he owned in Mashpee was sold for debts in a bankruptcy action. In 1839 he died suddenly in a boarding house in New York City and was buried with little to no fanfare.

When he writings were rediscovered by historians it was a revelation that such an eloquent, literate, passionate voice had once spoken so passionately for Indian rights at a time when slavery was still the law of the land and Indians, blacks and other dispossessed members of society were completely dismissed and subjugated by 19th Century America. Apess’ actions in Mashpeen in 1833 displayed an activism and passion for civil disobedience that presaged Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay on Civil Disobedience sixteen years later. Apess and the cause of the Wampanoags ignited abolitionist sympathies in Boston, helping coalesce a movement that was to drive the country to war within three decades.

Williamapes

As the historian Barry O’Connell wrote of Apess:

“In him, from a more tempered perspective, might be recognized a masterful polemicist and a canny strategist in leading a small minority to persuade a dominant majority to treat the minority with some respect.”

[Presented to the Cotuit Historical Society in October 2013]

The Mashpee Woodlot Revolt of 1833 Part III

(c0ntinued from part two)

Life in Mashpee and Cotuit in the early 19th century was dominated by the fast growth of the Nantucket whaling fishery. Cranberries had not yet been cultivated commercially, transportation on and off the Cape was either by horse and wagon but mainly by ship, and there was little to no tourism in the modern sense of the word. The US Senator from Massachusetts, Daniel Webster, was fond of fishing in Mashpee for sea-run brown trout, and may have lodged in the inn located in Santuit on the eastern banks of the Santuit River, the site of the present Cahoon museum. Other dignitaries, such as Yale’s Timothy Dwight and Ezra Stiles, paid calls on the Reverend Gideon Hawley, the missionary to Mashpee and a graduate of that college’s seminary who also made his home near the major intersection of modern day Routes 28 and 130. The economic life of the region was mostly agricultural and based on either fishing and shellfishing, farming such as could be encouraged from the sandy soil, some livestock, and the supply of manpower for the whaling fishery.

Wampanoag men were very active in the Nantucket whaling fleet and readers may recall that one harpooner of the Pequod, Tashtego, was a Wampanoag from the praying town of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. The whaling fishery made a number of Quaker merchants very wealthy men, and for a time Nantucket was one of the most wealthy places on the planet, if not certainly the most international, its crews opening up the South Pacific in the early 19th century for the first time since the voyages of discovery by Cook.  Whaling was an extremely dangerous profession and life on the greasy, slow, smoke-belching ships was neither easy nor especially lucrative for ordinary seamen. Some historians say Wampanoag employment in the whaling industry had a terrible effect of attrition on the male population. Those Wampanoag males that remained ashore practiced a subsistence lifestyle based on the traditional agricultural staples of corn, beans and squash, hunting and fishing.

In 1833 Mashpee was still governed by the board of overseers appointed by the Governor and the Trustees of the Williams Fund of Harvard which furnished a minister and funds for his support as well as the maintenance of the old Indian Meetinghouse. An Indian pastor hadn’t ministered to a flock in the meeting house for decades, and by the time the Rev. Gideon Hawley ended his tenure, the Wampanoags had started to drift away from Congregationalism to the Baptists and Methodists, the former led by the Rev. “Blind” Joe Amos, a Wampanoag. In 1809 Harvard appointed one its own, the Reverend Phineas Fish, to be the official missionary and Congregationalist Minister of Mashpee. Fish was paid an annual salary of $520, a $350 “settlement fee” and granted “as much meadow and pasture land, as shall be necessary to winter and summer.” The historian Donald Nielsen, in his essay “The Mashpee Indian Revolt of 1833″ wrote: “The sale of wood from the parsonage woodlot brought him [Fish] several hundred dollars more per year. Fish was assured a comfortable living on Mashpee land with money designated to help the Indians, yet he was in no way accountable to his flock.”

That lack of accountability, and what emerges through time as a somewhat churlish personality, was the undoing on Phineas Fish and the spark of the Woodlot Revolt. The tinder was supplied by William Apess, a fascinating figure who may stand as the earliest and most eloquent native American writer and activist concerned with native sovereign rights.

Apess was born in Colrain, Massachusetts near the Vermont border in 1798 of mixed-ancestry, a so-called “half-breed” who’s father may have been African American, but who’s mother was full-blooded Pequot Indian originally from southeastern Connecticut. The Pequots were the victims of the first English massacre, one that took place in Mystic, Connecticut in 1637 when a colonial militia surrounded a Pequot fort and killed 400 to 700 women, children and elderly (the able-bodied men were outside of the palisade scouting for the English force and thus spared until later hunted down and killed.)

I digress back two centuries to the first massacre of Indians on American soil only to lay the foundations for Apess’ subsequent activism as a voice for Indian rights. He was raised in terrible conditions, severely beaten by his grandmother at the age of four, raised as an unruly delinquent, raised as a foster child by white parents who despaired of his lying and thievery — traits he freely admits himself in his autobiography, A Native of the Forest. He enlisted in a New York state militia regiment bound for the Canadian front  during the War of 1812 and became the object of much teasing by older soldiers in his regiment who amused themselves by giving Apess liquor and encouraging his drunkenness. Following the War, Apess lived an itinerant existence throughout southern New England working as a cook and a laborer, eventually falling in love with a Pequot girl also of mixed-race, who reformed his ways and helped him sober up and continue his limited education. She gave birth, a family was started and in 1815 Apess was ordained as a Methodist minister. The historian Barry O’Connell at the University of Massachusetts wrote: “William Apess was a nobody. Born into poverty in 1798 in a tent in the woods of Colrain, Massachusetts, his parents of mixed Indian, white, and possibly African American blood, this babe had attached to him nearly every category that defined worthlessness in the United States.”

The Methodist tradition is one of the itinerant preacher who goes on the road to preach the word of God to whatever willing flock he can find along the way. Apess wrote and self-published A Son of the Forest, the first autobiography by an American Indian, and became increasingly focused on Indian rights and injustices.

In the spring of 1833 Apess, hearing about the thriving Wampanoag community in Mashpee, wrote to the Reverend Fish asking for an opportunity to visit and preach to his fellow Indians. Fish extended an invitation and Apess made his way to Cape Cod.

When Apess took the pulpit at the Old Indian Meetinghouse and began his sermon he became indignant as the lack of any native faces. The congregation was almost entirely white, comprised of worshippers from Cotuit and Santuit for the most part. Apess wrote:

I turned to meet my Indian brethren and give them the hand of friendship; but I was greatly disappointed in the appearance of those who advanced. All the Indians I had ever seen were of a reddish color, sometimes approaching a yellow, but now, look to what quarter I would, most of those who were coming were pale faces, and, in my disappointment, it seemed to me that the hue of death sat upon their countenances. It seemed very strange to me that my brethren should have changed their natural color and become in every respect like white men.”

Apess finished his sermon, thanked the Reverend and immediately sought out the leaders of the tribe to seek an explanation for why their most cherished building, their church, had been taken over by the whites. The leaders of the Wampanoags, led by the popular Reverend Blind Joe Amos gathered, expressed their grievances with the white-imposed system of oversight, the utter lack of any relationship to the Reverend Fish, and a litany of grievances around white incursions onto Mashpee lands. Apess. obviously a man of words accustomed to persuasion with his tongue, was also a born leader, and he emerged from those first meetings with the tribe as an “adopted” son of Mashpee, granted the trust and authority to represent the Wampanoags in their future dealings with the whites.

As a bit of historical context, 1833 was a time of profound foment in American politics that saw a great deal of chafing between the southern states and the Federal government, a friction that would, three decades later, lead to the War Between the States. In South Carolina, the hotbed of American secessionism, the US Senator John C. Calhoun had led a bitter fight against Federal tariffs under the auspices of “nullication a long-standing point of Constitutional law that defined the rights of the states to reject or “nullify” Federal legislation and mandates. Apess seized on the contemporary awareness of nullification and applied it to the situation in Mashpee, drafting a manifesto and statement of grievances that in essence said Mashpee was a sovereign nation established by the land grants of Richard Bourne and was in no way subject to the laws and oversight of any government body other than its own. E.g. Mashpee was not subject to the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

A petition was drafted and presented to the legislature in Boston. Among its resolutions:

“Resolved: That we as a tribe will rule ourselves, and have the right so to do for all men are born free and Equal says the Constitution of the County.

“Resolved: That we will not permit any white man to come upon our plantation to cut or carry of [sic] wood or hay any other artickle with out our permission after the first of  July next.

“Resolved: That we will put said resolutions in force after that date July next with the penalty of binding and throwing them from the plantation If they will not stay a way with out.”

A second petition was filed with Harvard calling for the removal of the Reverend Phineas Fish.

The reaction of the legislature was somewhat benign, but locally, one can imagine the reaction of the whites in Barnstable, Sandwich and Falmouth to the Wampanoag declaration of independence and the setting of a deadline of July 1, 1833 for all whites to evacuate Mashpee. In the Barnstable Patriot, the editor, one Sylvanus Bourne Phinney wrote that Apess had been distributing his pamphlet: “Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe” and stirring up some ugly emotions: “The teachings of this man are calculated to excite the distrust and jealousy of the inhabitants towards their present guardians and minister and with his pretensions to elevate them to what we all wish they might be, he will make them, in their present ill-prepared state for such preaching, ten times more turbulent, uncomfortable, unmanageable and unhappy than they are now.”

sylvanus
Barnstable Patriot Editor, Sylvanus Bourne Phinney

After the Wampanoag delegation led by Apess filed their petitions on Beacon Hill in June, 1833, they returned to the Cape “mistakenly supposing Governor Levi Lincoln approved of their reforms.” In fact, other than the local whites in the towns surrounding Mashpee, and the Reverend Phineas Fish, no one appeared to take the Wampanoags seriously.

Later that month the tribe notified the treasurer of the Board of Overseers, Obed Goodspeed, to turnover the plantation’s books and other papers. A tribal council was formally elected on June 25 and public notices were printed and displayed so that “said Resolutions be inforced.” On June 26, Reverend Fish was told “be on the Lookout for another home. We of no Indian that has been converted under your preaching and from 8 to 12 only have been your Constant Attenders. We are for peace rather than any thing else but we are satisfied we shall never enjoy it until we have our rights.”

This got the Reverend Fish’s attention. In panic at the unrest around him, the priggish clergyman wrote a letter to Governor Lincoln and had his predecessor’s son, Gideon Hawley, Jr., deliver it on horseback to Lincoln at the governor’s home in Worcester. Apess wrote afterwards that Fish wrote: “…the Indians were in open rebellion and that blood was likely to be shed .. It was reported and believed among us that he said we had armed ourselves and were prepared to carry all before us with tomahawk and scalping knife; that death and destruction, and all the horrors of a savage war, were impending;  that of the white inhabitants some were already dead and the rest dreadfull alarmed! An awful picture indeed.”

The deadline of July 1 was only a few days away.

(to be continued).