Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"The Devil and Father Ralle": The Narration of Father Rale's War in Provinicial Massachusetts

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"The Devil and Father Ralle": The Narration of Father Rale's War in Provinicial Massachusetts

Article excerpt

Cotton Mather's calendar had just rolled over to January 1, 1723, and with the turn he wrote his friend Robert Wodrow of Scotland concerning frightening though unsurprising news: "The Indians of the East, under the Fascinations of a French Priest, and Instigations of our French Neighbours, have begun a New War upon us..."1 Though they had enjoyed a respite from actual war since the Peace of Utrecht postponed hostilities between the French and British in 1713, New Englanders always knew that it was only a matter of time before the aggressive interests, uncertain borders, and conflicting visions of the religious contest between them and the French Canadians would lead to more bloodshed. Especially uncertain was the status of the "eastern settlements," above Salem and beyond the mouth of the Piscataqua, where French missions and English and Scottish settlements came uncomfortably close, and where in times of peace native land holdings became more and more valuable to the colonists. Some New Englanders worried that movement into the northeastern borderlands also brought settlers closer to physically and spiritually miscegenated French and Indian Catholics, such as the "half-Indianized French" and "halfFrenchified Indians" which Cotton Mather described as decimating Salmon Falls in 1690.2 After 1714, British farmers began again to advance their settlement into the eastern regions, literally putting the borderland Abenakis in the middle between French and British imperial claims. In 1722, the Abenakis' lands would erupt again into a conflict to which the combatants would assign very different meanings.3

The period after the Treaty of Utrecht, the death of Louis XIV, the failed Jacobite insurrection of 1715, and ultimately the Triple Alliance between Britain, France, and the United Provinces (1716) has usually been seen, rightly so, as a time of politically expedient rapprochement between France and Britain that never appeared likely to last.4 Yet however great the tension remained between France and Britain in the European theater, the tension was even greater between the French and British settlements of North America, and the settlements of Canada and New England in particular. This heightened tension resulted from several factors. First, the colonies had less clear boundaries, political and physical, separating them. In Europe, aggressors would always have to brave the waters of the Channel. In New England and Canada, the frontier was more fluid despite the presence of the White Mountains and other barriers. Also, the Abenakis and other Native American societies injected a volatile element in the economic and military relations between the competing empires. Though decimated by disease and increasingly by rum, the Indians of northern New England still proved important trading partners and capable fighters, both factors which the French and British wished to have on their side. Finally, the religious sensibilities of the clerical, political and mercantile leadership made relations with the French take on a tone which at times could suggest the apocalyptic. In England, the marginalized dissenters viewed the French with a particular hatred, but in New England those same dissenters held sway over much of the trades, churches, and government.5 Though at the periphery of empire, the leaders of the Canadian and New English provinces were the worst sort of enemies.

In August 1717, Governor Samuel Shute and a diplomatic party made their way to Arrowsick Island at the mouth of the Kennebec River, where at the tiny settlement of George Town they met with representatives of the Abenakis and others, including most significantly representatives from Norridgewock, where the French had maintained a successful Jesuit mission for more than fifty years.6 Shute wanted to convince the assembled Indians that King George was the authority over them now, not the young French King Louis XV. With translated and liberally interpreted dialogues as the chief records of such meetings one can hardly be certain of how things went, but if nothing else Shute's nervous condescension comes through clearly. …

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