Springfield's Puritans and Indians: 1636-1655

Article excerpt

Throughout American history, settlements on the periphery of society have been markedly different from the more developed, more populous ones near the center. Frontier settlements have developed differently for several reasons: the physical environment often shaped the frontier community in an unusual way; the political identity and beliefs of settlers were often unique; frontier communities often had a distinct religious character; the settlement might have even differed ethnically from the community it left behind; and most obviously, the newer settlement often had a different economic base.

Several of these factors made colonial Springfield unique. The Connecticut River offered the founders of Springfield opportunities for trade and farming that were unavailable to the Puritans in the interior regions of New England. Politically and religiously, Springfield stood apart from other Puritan towns. Indeed, Springfield's founder, William Pynchon fled New England after Puritan authorities condemned and burned The Meritorious Price of Redemption. The distinctiveness of Springfield in these ways has been well documented by many historians.

However, the distinctiveness of Springfield's Indian policy has been largely overlooked. Springfield's location on the periphery of Puritan society contributed to it developing a significantly different Indian policy. The manner in which Springfield and its founder William Pynchon related to and viewed its Indian neighbors was very uncommon in Puritan society. This claim can be well defended. Firstly, Pynchon had a much broader conception of Indian sovereignty and independence than other Puritan leaders. He did not fully accept that God's grace and the King's charter gave the Puritans full and final legal authority over the heathen Indians. Secondly, Springfield's land policy was beneficial to both the Indians and the settlers. The earliest settlers did not employ force or phony legal doctrine to take possession of the land. Instead, title to the land was obtained in a fair and equitable manner. Finally, it can be argued that the treatment of Indians in the Springfield courts was generally fair and impartial.

The respect accorded to the Indians by their European neighbors should not be misinterpreted, however. The earliest Europeans in Springfield were not great humanitarians. There is nothing in the records to suggest that they were more noble or kindhearted than their counterparts in other Puritan towns. In fact, Pynchon and his townspeople probably accepted the Puritan notion that the Indians were corrupted by the devil and therefore less godly then themselves. Instead, Springfield's fair and just Indian policy was simply a pragmatic response to its location on the fringes of Puritan society. More than other Puritan towns, Springfield had to maintain good relations with its Indian neighbors. Inimical relations would have endangered Springfield's fur trade and, more significantly, its security. In short, Springfield was compelled to treat the Indians with unusual fairness and justice. Regardless of their motives, the records clearly show that in matters of judicial procedure, land acquisition, and commerce, the earliest European settlers of Springfield followed a remarkably considerate and just policy in their dealings with the Native inhabitants of the area.

The first recorded Puritan visit to western Massachusetts was made by John Oldham and three other unidentified Puritan pioneers in September of 1633. Oldham's dealings with the local Indians were encouraging to the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay. In his Journal, Governor John Winthrop noted that:

The sachem used them kindly, and gave them some beaver. They brought of the hemp, which grows there in great abundance, and is much better than the English. He accounted it to be about one hundred and sixty miles. He brought back some black lead, whereof the Indians told him there was a whole rock. He lodged at Indian towns the whole way. …