American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Praying Villages of Massachusetts

Beginning in 1651, the Massachusetts Bay colony embarked on a mission to "civilize" and Christianize the Native peoples of New England. They attempted to accomplish this through the establishment of what came to be known as praying villages or praying towns. Many historians believe that these early settlements set the precedent for the reservation system, which came into prominence nearly 200 years later.

From the time it received its charter in 1629, one of the primary goals of the Massachusetts Bay Company was to spread Christianity and English culture. Indeed, the colony's original seal featured an Indian and the motto, "Come Over and Help Us." In the colony's formative years, however, there was little missionary activity. The Puritan settlers were more interested in simply subsisting and carving out a viable colony. Furthermore, they had first to consolidate their power and establish military dominance in the region, which was more or less accomplished after the Pequot War of 1637 and the submission of the Massachusett Indians in the mid-1640s.

In 1646, John Eliot began a rigorous campaign of proselytizing to the tribes of New England, including the Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pawtucket, and the Pennacook Confederacy. The success of this initial foray was limited, leading Eliot and the colony's leadership to believe that the Indians first had to be immersed in English culture before they could be converted. To accomplish this, they established protoreservations, or praying villages, where the Native people could be isolated and taught European customs. The first such village was Natick, which was soon followed by numerous others. By the outbreak of King Philip's War in 1675, there were fourteen such missions.

The Massachusetts Bay government set land aside for the praying villages and maintained control over them. Each reservation was laid out in an orderly manner, with English-style structures and streets spread across the village. The Native inhabitants also followed European subsistence patterns, tilling the surrounding fields and tending to livestock. In terms of government, the villages' adult male populations elected their own local leaders and drafted legislation. All laws and ordinances passed by the villagers, however, were subject to the approval of a superintendent who was appointed by the Massachusetts Bay General Court.

A staunch assimilationist, John Eliot insisted that the villages' inhabitants throw off their Indian culture. Native dress and religion, tribalism, polygamy, and powwows were strictly prohibited, while the European conception of private property was hammered home. A system of punishments and incentives was enacted: Those who transgressed or violated the villages' codes were fined; those who exhibited "good" behavior and made progress in adopting white ways were rewarded. This crash course in "civilization" was followed by a relentless effort to Christianize the Indians. Eliot worked with Indian converts to translate the Bible into Algonquian. He also wrote The Indian Primer and other texts outlining the cornerstones of Puritanical theology.

The success of the praying villages was limited. Most New England Indians shunned the missions and opted to keep their distance from the intruding non-Native world. The minority who did join the villages were from the most weakened tribes, such as the Massachusetts and Nipmucks. Their world had been decimated by disease and the English conquest of their lands. For these "praying Indians," the adoption of European culture seemed to be the only alternative. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of Eliot and others, they remained caught between Puritan society and their former tribes, never fully accepted by either.

When King Philip's War broke out in 1675, many of the Indians in the praying villages sided with the Wampanoag sachem, Metacom (King Philip), and his pan-Indian alliance. Others remained neutral or even fought alongside the colonists. Regardless of where they stood in the conflict, all New England Indians lost out once the war came to an end in 1676. Most of those who survived the bloody ordeal were pushed out of their traditional lands and summarily shipped off to isolated reservations or the West Indies. The colony's General Court eliminated all but three praying villages. The villages that remained were overrun and eventually absorbed by land-hungry whites in a few years. By the turn of the century, Eliot's initial experiment of assimilation and Christianization was just a fading memory.

Bradley Shreve


Further Reading
Gookin, Daniel. [1674] 1970. Historical Collections of the Indians in New England. Spencer, MA: Towtaid Press.; Morrison, Kenneth M. 1974. " 'That Art of Coyning Christians:' John Eliot and the Praying Indians of Massachusetts." Ethnohistory 21, no. 1: 77–92.; Salisbury, Neal. 1974. "Red Puritans: The 'Praying Indians' of Massachusetts Bay and John Eliot." The William and Mary Quarterly 31, no. 1: 27–54.
 

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