The Mashpee Woodlot Revolt of 1833

In the annals of native/colonist relations, little can be objectively known about the true nature of the interactions between the English settlers of Eastern Massachusetts and the tribe that “welcomed” them, the Wampanoag. The record is one-sided and dominated by the English and their system of deeds, genealogies, written records and literature. This has led to the perpetuation of the pleasant myth of Wampanoag welcoming and cooperating with the Pilgrims, a myth created in the 19th century in a burst of American patriotism and nostalgia which lives on in the quaint concept of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast.

The Wampanoag now regard Thanksgiving as a day of mourning, and, thanks to recent scrutiny of the actual historical record, it’s apparent the tribe are the forgotten first victims of the American “dream.”

If, as Churchill said, “history is written by the victors,” the Wampanoags left little in the way of a written record of their relations and feelings towards the colonists. They had no written language, only their Algonquin dialect, and no historical tradition beyond the spoken word and creation myths.

The discovery and re-publication of a unique account written by a member of the Connecticut Pequot tribe, William Apes (Apess), has revealed the earliest autobiography in American literature by a native, as well as cast some light on a little known incident that took place 180 years ago on the Wampanoag “reservation” or “praying town” of Mashpee, near its border with the village of Cotuit, is a little known historical incident that occurred 180 years ago, in a wood lot near the Santuit River between a group of angry Wampanoag natives, two brothers from Cotuit, and an alcoholic activist preacher, Apess.

Variously known as the Woodlot Revolt or the “Quarrel” (as Cotuit historian Jim Gould refers to it), it has been dusted off by historians and held up in recent years as the first significant expression of sovereign rights by a native tribe since contact with the colonists occurred more than 200 years before. The preacher, William Apes (who preferred the pronunciation “Apess”) was an eloquent and graceful writer, who’s work, “A Native of the Forest” has been republished in recent years and is regarded as one of the most important pieces of literature penned by a native writer.


Before I rush to an account of the events that happened that hot July day in 1833, let me set the historical table with a quick summary of how Mashpee, our conterminous neighbor to the west, came to be, and attempt to convey a sense of what relations were between the whites of Cotuit and the natives of the Plantation of Marshpee.

Before the English, with their love of deeds and records and certificates of birth, marriage and death, came to these shores, the history of the Wampanoag tribe — which means “Children of the Eastern Light” in their Algonquin dialet, Wopanaak — was purely an oral one, with no record left except the traditions and stories told by one generation to the next. Like their comprehension of private property, boundary lines and fishing rights, the Wampanoag sense of history was passed from one generation to the next through word of mouth and shared understanding.

In 1643, the Pilgrim’s military “muscle”, Captain Miles Standish, came to Cape Cod to buy land from the natives for the colonists. Land was everything to the Europeans. Land meant status, land meant class, land conferred rights that serfs and peassants could only dream of. In Europe land was inherited or conquered, rarely bought and sold, and the allure of the virgin forests of New England must have been breathtaking to the first settlers who saw before them as limitless wilderness that was theirs to take for a mere kettle and a ho.


Yes, Standish negotiated the transaction with the Wampanoag leader Paupmunnuck that gave the English the rights to settle Cotachester (modern Osterville) and Cotuit for the price of a kettle, a ho, and a promise to build a fence around the Wampanoag camp which may have been located on Oyster Harbors or Point Isabella according to Jim Gould.

The borders were blurry.. Surveyors were a luxury and boundaries and limits were rough descriptions of streams and boulders, landmarks and limits. Little was written down and put on file, and indeed, Paupmunnuck and his people may not have comprehended what such a transaction meant, especially when it came to concepts such as trespassing to a people accustomed to moving from camp to camp with the seasons, moving inland in the winter for shelter and to the coast in the summer for the same reasons we prize the shore today.

The western border between Barnstable and the Indians was set along the banks of the Santuit River and Santuit Pond. Such “rivers” or streams were incredibly valuable sources of protein when the herring run happened every spring, and were also potential sources of power to drive grist mills for the grinding of corn.


The settlers may have regarded the Santuit River as a convenient source of these things, but the Wampanoags told the story of how it was created  by a frustrated giant man-sized trout named  , who upon hearing the siren song of a beautiful Wampanoag maiden singing on the shores of Santuit Pond, thrashed and wriggled his way through the forest from Popponesset Bay to find her, only to die just yards from his doomed love. She was also transformed into a fish, but died of grief and both of them buried together in the Trout Mound which stands today a short distance to the south and east of the herring ladders at the southern end of Santuit Pond.

This area of Mashpee and Santuit is where the rest of this story is focused so let’s focus on the map for a moment.


Mashpee was formed in the 1660s by Richard Bourne of Sandwich, a prominent lawyer and minister who was part of the early missionary movement led by John Eliot — the minister who translated the Bible into Wopanaak — and which led to the founding of Harvard College as a so called “Indian School.” The conversion of the savages was an immediate priorty of the first settlers, and Bourne acted as a liason between the whites of this area and the tribe, administering to them during an epidemic where his survival conferred some god-like attributes in the eyes of the natives, and working on their behalf to acquire land in around the area to establish a “plantation” for their benefit.


In 1660 Bourne completed the purchase of the 16 square miles that roughly comprise Mashpee and established a deed which granted the land to the Wampanoags with restrictions on their ability to sell that land to the English who were always hot for land and indeed, were beginning to trespass and poach on the lands Standish didn’t buy in 1648. Bourne addressed the fuzziness of the western border between Barnstable and Mashpee, and  at his insistence the boundaries were re-set to move the line around the “ancient Indian” village at the southeast corner of the pond.

In 1661 a meetinghouse for the tribe was built on Briant’s Point on the southern end of Santuit Pond. This was replaced by another structure in 1670 , the same building that was eventually moved in 1770 to its present site on Route 28, the Old Falmouth Road.

In 1670 tensions between the settlers and the tribe deteriorated — with the Wampanoag leader Metacomet, or “King Philip” as he was called by the colonists, leading the Wampanoags from their headquarters on Mount Hope Bay near modern Bristol, RI on a three year war of burnings, kidnappings, and terror that swept eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island but never involved Cape Cod.

Massasoit Metacomet

Mashpee was viewed as the prototypical “Praying Town” — one where the influence of the missionaries and the conversion process into Xhristianity was sufficiently advanced that the tribe could be trusted. One can only assume the level of tension and emotions that ranged along the border of Cotuit and Mashpee during those tense years, marked in American history as perhaps the bloodiest per capita according to the historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his excellent history, “The Mayflower.”

Post war, as the colonists enacted a terrible retribution against the Wampanoags, resettling large numbers on Bermuda, while permitting alcohol to further erode their numbers, the missionaries resumed their conversions and ministrations, using the institution of the Congregational Church and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel as the civilizing center of life in Marshpee. Because the focus of the Harvard Indian College was the training and ordination of native ministers, the college played an integral role, a very paternalistic one, in overseeing the affairs of the village.

This paternalism persisted throughout the 1700s, manifesting itself in a combination of church and state — in this case church and colony — oversight consisting of a board of white overseers who looked after the affairs of the tribe, raised money to pay its expenses and provided the funds to pay the salary of the minister, the parsonage and meetinghouse.

To be continued …

The Fall of Constantinople: 1453, Sir Steven Runciman

I’m back on a deep dive into medieval history. It’s a long story, but the revival was sparked by my figuring out how to stream Audible “books-on-tape” through my Android phone and a Bluetooth hands-free speaker phone that pushes audio into my the car’s FM radio.

The first book I downloaded was Edward Gibbon’s: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. With four hours and 250 miles to kill between Manhattan and Cape Cod, it’s enough time to listen to two chapters as read by by the former University of Virginia professor, Bernard Mayes.  Somehow sitting in bumper-to-bumper between Westport and Norwalk, Connecticut and learning about the excesses of Commodus (the real emperor who was the basis of the bad guy Joaquin Phoenix played in Gladiator) seems like a very good use of idle time. I’m on chapter 16, having just endured a beastly 3 am drive from NYC to Boston on Saturday morning in a downpour.

For the armchair, I’ve been engrossed in Sir Steven Runciman’s masterful The Fall of Constantinople, 1453. I prize his three-volume history of the Crusades, which contains what may well be my favorite line of all historical writing, regarding the leprous King Baldwin IV: “In Jerusalem the leper king kept the reins of power in his decaying hands.”

Runciman was a masterful historian and astonishing scholar who read his primary sources in nearly every language they were originally written. For some reason in all of my past readings into Byzantine history, I’ve missed out on his account of the siege and fall of the capital of the Roman Empire. Thanks to Amazon’s used book finder, I’ve plowed through the book and am here to declare that someone needs to make a movie, for a better tale of action I’ve never known.

The quick background:

Constantinople is strategically located on the Bosporus — the Hellespont — the narrow channel that divides Asia from Europe. Constantine the Great, the Emperor of the Romans who succeeded Diocletian after a protracted civil war, converts to Christianity and moves the capital from Rome to Byzantium, a remote outpost of the empire strategically straddling the Hellespont. What follows is the longest lived empire in the history of civilization, culminating with its defeat and destruction in 1453 by the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II. The city was sacked and invaded by the Fourth Crusade, a disaster that weakened it and set into play the conflicts between the Orthodox Eastern Christian Church and the Western Catholic Church. As a result, no sovereign in the West came to Constantinople’s defense during the alarming fall and winter preceding the spring attack. Despite the pleading of the last Emperor (also named Constantine), the few Greeks remaining in the walled city were all that stood between the invading Islamic force. Only the merchant city states of Venice and Genoa sent fleets and arms, but those were to defend their commercial interests and weren’t enough to come close to matching Mehmet’s immense army of over 100,000 men.

The defenders could only muster 7,000.

For two months the famed walls of Constantinople kept the Turks frustrated, but time, treachery, and sheer numbers saw the inevitable finally come true.

Runciman writes of the last Emperor’s final moments as the Turks finally breached the walls:

“…In the confusion it was impossible to close the gate. The Turks came pouring through; and the Bocchiardis’ men were too few now to push them back. Constantine turned his horse and galloped back to the Lycus valley and the breaches in the stockade. With him was the gallant Spaniard who claimed to be his cousin, Don Francisco of Toledo, and his own cousin Theophilus Palaeologus and a faithful comrade-at-arms, John Dalmata. Together they tried to rally the Greeks, in vain; the slaughter had been too great. They dismounted and for a few minutes the four of them held the approach to the gate through which Giustiniani had been carried. But the defence was broken now. The gate was jammed with Christian soldiers trying to make their escape, as more and more Janissaries fell on them. Theophilus shouted that he would rather die than live and disappeared into the oncoming hordes. Constantine himself knew now that the Empire was lost and he had no wish to survive it. He flung off his imperial insignia and, with Don Francisco and John Dalmata still at his side, he followed Theophilus. He was never seen again.”

I strongly recommend this one.


The Story that Started Tech Journalism

After reading John McCarthy’s obituary this morning (by John Markoff), I was prompted to re-read Stewart Brand’s legendary tale of early computer scientists and hackers that was published in Rolling Stone in 1972.

Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.

I highly recommend it. The photo of Alan Kay and the Dynabook is priceless. Keep in mind this is a glimpse of the state of the art in Silicon Valley from 40 years ago. Pre-personal computer. Pre-Steve Jobs. Then take those four decades that intervene and add in the microprocessor, bountiful memory, graphics, the Internet, wireless, cell phones, smartphones, tablets …… No one, not even the most stoned futurist, could have predicted the technical bounty we take for granted today. Brand’s story puts it all in perspective for me. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

An American Experience: We Shall Remain

I just watched an excellent 90-minute PBS show on the Wampanoag experience from their first contact with the Pilgrims to the tragic conclusion of King Philips War in 1672.

I highly recommend it. It was very accurate and beautifully filmed.  Pretty interesting to hear Algonquin spoken in the Nipmuc dialect.

What I am reading — Mourt’s Relation

Mourt’s Relation — arguably the first piece of American literature –  the first first-hand account of the first year of the Pilgrim’s after their landing on Cape Cod and Plymouth in 1620, and the basis for most stories that have followed. Samoset and Squanto, theft of the Indian corn at Corn Hill in Truro, first meeting with Massasoit, herring/shad to fertilize the corn, the first Thanksgiving — and a ton of other detail not usually taught in the elementary school Thanksgiving mythology most of us were fed as kids.

Written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford, but published by a George Morton, hence the “Mourt” — a “relation” is a retelling, as in “he related the story of how the Nauset tribe attacked them at First Encounter Beach.” Again, thanks to N. Philbrick’s Mayflower for getting me on the early colonial history thing. I had a great dinner conversation Saturday night with Ross Kerber from the Boston Globe about the book and we both geeked out over stuff like the Great Swamp Fight.

Bye-bye to Netscape

End of Support for Netscape web browsers – The Netscape Blog

CNET’s Stephen Shankland reports on the end of an era, the Netscape browser. I remember downloading the earliest version in 1994, prior to an interview with Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape, and laughing at his suggestion I leave Forbes and go to work for an internet company. Stupid me.

Netscape put the fear into Microsoft like no other company because of the immense popularity of the browser, its head start over Internet Explorer, and the simple fact that most early users left the Netscape homepage as their default, making that page the most heavily trafficked piece of virtual property in the world. The question was how would Netscape monetize that traffic. For a great insight into those early browser wars and the first stirring of the Microsoft giant and the big antitrust browser wars of the mid-90s, read Charles Ferguson’s High Stakes, No Prisoners (major congratulations to Charles for winning the New York Film Critic’s award for best documentary for No End In Sight)

Netscape  brought aboard James Barksdale to bring the company to the next level, and eventually was acquired by AOL which was in the middle of its own identity crisis as it moved from essentially a rack of 56K modems to an internet service provider. I never quite figured out the play for AOL, which made some astonishingly stupid acquisitions including the infamous Time-Warner deal. There were noises about making Netscape a content play under Jason Calacanis, but when he left AOL after selling his blog network to them, the patient went onto the do-not-revive list.

Does anyone care about browsers anymore? Firefox has won my heart, now I am more interested in the application on the other side of the glass.

From the Netscape blog:

AOL’s focus on transitioning to an ad-supported web business leaves little room for the size of investment needed to get the Netscape browser to a point many of its fans expect it to be. Given AOL’s current business focus and the success the Mozilla Foundation has had in developing critically-acclaimed products, we feel it’s the right time to end development of Netscape branded browsers, hand the reins fully to Mozilla and encourage Netscape users to adopt Firefox.”

The Great Swamp Fight – 332 years ago today

As I sit inside this stormy day, warm by the fire, my thoughts are eighty miles to the west, in a swamp in the town of South Kingston, Rhode Island, near the campus of the University of Rhode Island, a place still desolate by modern standards, off a boring stretch of Route 195 between Connecticut and Providence.

On a day like this, 332 years ago, the most significant “battle” of what has been called the bloodiest (per capita) conflict in the history of America — the Great Swamp Fight — took place in a Rhode Island swamp, an attack by the colonial militia from the Plymouth, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay Colony killed about 300 Narragansett Indians (precise figures are unknown) on an island in the middle of Rhode Island’s Great Swamp.

Led there by an Indian guide, the militia were able to reach the fort because an unusually cold late fall had frozen the swamp, making an assault possible.

The dead were mostly women and children. Those who fled into the swamp faced a long winter without food and shelter.

The irony of the assault was that the Narragansetts had been neutral in the King Philip War, staying out of the fight waged by Metacomet (King Philip) and the Wampanoag tribe. The Great Swamp Fight assured that neutrality would be forgotten, and the Narragansetts joined the terrible war.

Gerald Hyde, a state historian, wrote in 1938 on the occasion of a memorial marker being installed at the site:

“A fort in the Great Swamp had been built by the Narragansett Sachem, Canonchet, as a place of refuge. Because of its location on a small island of dry land in the midst of a great swamp, he no doubt considered it impregnable. It was, however, only partially completed and consisted of “pallisadoes stuck upright in a hedge of about a rod in thickness.” Two fallen trees formed natural bridges which were the only entrances and the principal one was guarded by a block house. Inside the fort the stores, harvests and accumulated wealth of the Narragansetts had been brought and there asylum had been offered the aged and infirm and the women and children of the Wampanoags of King Philip.

The United Colonies of New England declared war against the Narragansett Indians on November 2, 1675, charging them, among other things, with “relieving and succouring Wampanoag women and children and wounded men” and not delivering them to the English, and also because they “did in a very reproachful and blasphemous manner, triumph and rejoice” over the English defeat at Hadley. They voted to raise a thousand soldiers to be sent against the Narragansetts unless their sachems gave up the fugitive Wampanoags.

The forces of the United Colonies under Governor Winslow marched across Rhode Island and on December 14 attacked the village of the Squaw Sachem Matantuck near Wickford and burned 150 wigwams, killing seven Indians and taking nine prisoners. The Narragansetts then began a guerrilla warfare, sniping Colonial troops wherever occasion offered.

On the night of December 15 the Indians surrounded Jireh Bull’s large stone house on Tower Hill and massacred all but two of the occupants. The smoldering ruins of the house were found by English scouts the next day. It is possible that the Indians had learned of a plan for the Connecticut contingent to join the other forces at this house and had destroyed it in order to handicap the colonies. Three days later the two English forces joined at Pettaquamscutt and planned to attack the Indians the next day.

Ordinarily the swamp was practically impenetrable, as it is to this day, but due to the severe December weather the marshy ground had frozen and the English soldiers gained easy access to the island. The Indian outposts retreated into the fort where they were followed by the English. The terrible battle which then began took place amidst ice, snow, under brush and fallen trees.

At first repulsed, the English continued the assault, though with heavy losses. They contested almost every foot of ground until the Narragansetts, also suffering many casualties, were driven gradually from their fort into the swamp and woods.

Meanwhile, the English had set fire to the wigwams, some 600 in number, and flames swept through the crowded fort. The “shrieks and cries of the women and children, the yelling of the warriors, exhibited a most horrible and appalling scene, so that it greatly moved some of the soldiers. They were in much doubt and they afterwards seriously inquired whether burning their enemies alive could be consistent with humanity and the benevolent principle of the gospel,” says one early account.

The retreating Indians were driven from the woods about the fort, leaving the English a complete, though costly, victory. They had lost five captains and 20 men and had some 150 wounded that must be carried back to a house some ten miles distant. To the terrors of the battle and fire were added the bitter cold and blinding snow of a New England blizzard through which the English toiled back to Cocumcussa. The hardships of that march took a toll of 30 or 40 more lives. The Indians reported a loss of 40 fighting men and one sachem killed and some 300 old men, women and children burned alive in the wigwams.”

Nathaniel Philbrick wrote an outstanding account of the war recently in his book, Mayflower.  I decided to locate the site and to my sad distress I see it is somewhere near the Amtrak line, where, on countless occasions I have hurtled through on the Acela, oblivious to the fact that the fastest section of track between Boston and Washington runs somewhere near the scene of the massacre.

Call it my senescence, but I feel more and more aware and freaked out by the history around me, the paved over battlefields, the Old Post Roads, the historic paths now covered with subdivisions and strip malls. Reading David McCullough’s 1776 and the account of the British attack on New York, and then being there last week, and looking across at Brooklyn and thinking of the rustic wilderness there, the fighting along the Gowanus Creek, now a stinking cesspool — the landing of the British at Kips Bay. The battles of White Plains and Trenton … and then skip forward to the urban anonymity of both, marked by a bronze tablet or two where heroes and cowards fought centuries before ….