About 400 years ago, several boatloads of rigidly righteous racist Puritans washed up on the shore, much to the detriment of the Indians of New England. The two cultures could not have been more different. Every schoolchild knows the sacred colonial myths, but what really happened is far more obscure, and far more interesting. In search of a more accurate story, historian James Axtell plowed through mountains of old papers and summed up what he learned in his book The European and the Indian.
In 1600, Europe was near the peak of the Inquisition. At that time, it was perfectly appropriate to torture and burn thousands and thousands of people who were accused of doing ridiculous and impossible things. The Puritans were an offshoot of the new Protestant movement, which was obsessed with sin and evil, and terrified of sex and sensuality. The natural world was the realm of Satan. The Puritans were raised in a hell broth of mass hysteria. They believed that the ideal life was one of back-breaking work. They were rigorously trained to be obedient to their superiors, and their way of life was “almost slavery.”
The Indians blew their minds. Native men spent their days hunting, fishing, and socializing, living like upper class English lords. They wore their hair long, which was a shocking display of pride and independence (pride was the greatest sin of all). They had contempt for all authority. Their low-tech agriculture produced as much food as colonial farmers, using just primitive hand tools and far less labor — the women tended the fields! They were impossible to predict and control, because they would suddenly pack up and move to an unknown location, as if they were noble aristocrats who could do whatever they wished. The Indians were absolutely free people, and the Puritans were neurotic heavily-armed control freaks.
It was easy to control colonists who lived in established villages and towns, because the authorities could keep a careful eye on them, and promptly punish those who stepped out of line. But some colonists drifted off into the wilderness, and lived far from church and law, where they were dangerously at risk of slipping into heathenish ignorance and barbarism. These disgusting renegades were lazy and immoral people who lived in crude log cabins, dressed in animal skins, and lived by hunting. There were small settlements in the Maine wilderness where Europeans lived in complete freedom, in a state of nature, as wild as the deer — a delicious idea to contemplate. Imagine that.
One thing in the old papers astounded Axtell. Over and over the colonists wrote about the need to “reduce” the savage barbarians to civility, to “reduce” them to docility. The word “reduce” was used many times, with just two exceptions (the exceptions were written in the eighteenth century, long after the settlement period). “Reduce” is a word that has a clear, unambiguous meaning. The colonial writers used it accurately, if you believe that freedom is good, as I do.
The number one stated purpose of settlement was to bring the gospel to the Indians and save them. Because European society was so vastly superior, Indians would certainly fall over each other in the rush to be converted. But this fantasy crashed head-on into reality. Missionaries frequently alienated the Indians with their intolerant ethnocentricism. And Christian settlers were too often greedy, brutal, dishonest hypocrites. The foreign religion competed poorly with the traditional spirituality of the Indians, which worked perfectly well for them.
The schools established for Indian children were miserable, and most students fled at the first opportunity. The few Indians who managed to jump through all of the hoops, and successfully become educated Christians, discovered that they had no place in white society, because they were members of an inferior race. Coerced conversion was a complete failure. Later, the settlers discovered that the Indians could successfully be converted with “Powder & Ball.” Dead Indians were easy to control, and offered no resistance to the seizure of their lands.
I was especially fascinated by Axtell’s discussion of the “white Indians” — colonists who voluntarily lived with the natives, and merged into native families and communities. European diseases and bullets killed many Indians. To replace them, the Indians adopted whites that they captured, mostly women and children. Also, a number of whites deliberately ran away and were accepted into Indian tribes. This happened so often that laws were passed to ban settlers from escaping to freedom — violators could be beaten, imprisoned, or hung for treason.
In 1782, Hector de Crèvecoeur was astounded to discover that “thousands” of Europeans had become Indians, but no Indians had become Europeans. Other sources confirm that this was not a wild exaggeration. Most white Indians preferred living with the natives, and made no effort to escape. When relatives came to get them, and begged them to come home, they usually declined to return. And those who did return often got disgusted and soon came back to their tribe.
The Indians were moral and honest people, unlike the Puritans. They were more Christian than the Christians, and they won the hearts of their former enemies with kindness and generosity. They lovingly accepted the whites into their families as brothers and sisters. They treated women with absolute dignity and respect. Indian children enjoyed abundant love and attention, the complete opposite of the Puritan mode of severe discipline. Some of the white Indians later became great chiefs.
A life of hunting and fishing was far more enjoyable than a life of plowing and reaping. The Puritan colonists endured a life similar to slavery, fettered with cultural balls and chains. White Indians discovered that freedom was divine — far more valuable than the cheap thrills of life in an oppressive society. It’s no fun being reduced to docility and civility, and they gladly walked away to a better life.
James Axtell. The European and the Indian. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.