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Witchcraft and the Indians

From "Maine, Indian Land Speculation, and the Essex County Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692" by Emerson W. Baker and James Kences.

 

In the past several decades, historians of the Essex County witchcraft outbreak have turned increasingly to the impact of the frontier, warfare, and Native Americans on the events of 1692. Although there is no single cause responsible for the witchcraft accusations, a growing number of historians view these events as largely the result of a war hysteria, triggered by the abandonment of the Maine frontier in the early years of King William's War. The effects of King Philip's War and King William's War on the people of Essex County have been well documented by these authors and other historians. Numerous participants in the witchcraft trials, including afflicted girls, accused witches, judges and witnesses, had ties to the northern frontier. Some were refugees from that region, and others were absentee Maine landholders. A few participants had family members killed on the frontier during King Phillip's War. Even the new leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor William Phips and his wife, Lady Mary Phips, came from Maine.

This linkage between witchcraft and frontier war was readily apparent to contemporary observers. In his 1699 Decennium Luctuosum Cotton Mather compared King William's War to the struggle against Satan being waged in Salem and he blamed the Indians for both conflicts.

The story of the prodigious war, made by the spirits of the invisible world upon the people of New-England, in the year 1692, hath entertain'd a great part of the English world with a just astonishment. And I have met with some strange things, not here to me mentioned, which have made me often think that this inexplicable war might have some of its original among the Indians, whose chief sagamores are well known unto some of our captives to have been horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurers, and such as conversed with demons.

Though largely overlooked since Mather, this historiographical interpretation has grown in size and significance since 1984 when James Kences expanded on the connections between war and witchcraft initially put forward by Richard Slotkin, in Regeneration through Violence. . . .

 

. . . Even towns far from the frontier, such as Lynn, had to interact with Native Americans to secure their title. In this process, people not only exposed themselves to avarice and greed but to a further danger - contact with Indians whom many Puritans believed to be agents of the devil. This portrayal of Native Americans, an on-going theme of early English writers, took on a new intensity during times of conflict. For example, in describing the Pequot War, John Underhill called the tribe "wicked imps" aided by Satan, and under his command. Reverend William Hubbard described two Wabanaki sachems as "not without some shew of a Kind of Religion, which no doubt they have learned from the Prince of Darkness .... It is also said they have received some Visions and Revelations." Hubbard went so far as to label these enemy commanders of King Philip's War as "Minsters of Satan."

This association between Native Americans and Satan can even be glimpsed in land transactions. In deeds, the English used nicknames they had given to the Indians. Names like Robin Hood, Little John, and Jack Pudding (a rustic buffoon or clown) are clear allusions to English carnival culture. They reflect an English sense of superiority, but also perhaps a slight playfulness, or sense of humor. Several nicknames, however, suggests a darker connotation. "Black Will," the sachem of Nahant reinforced the image of the devil as "black man." It is unclear if the name Fluellin is of Native or English origin, however Fluellin was also an herb that was believed to be used by witches. John Cotta, a nickname given to a Native of the Damariscotta River region, was also the name of one of the leading contemporary English authorities on witchcraft. This nickname is a bit of a pun. It reflects the English attitude that Indians practiced pagan rites that bordered on devil worship. Thus, a Native American from Damariscotta was deemed an expert on witchcraft, just like the learned scholar John Cotta. It is also notable that Robin Hood and John Cotta lived near the place the English called Merrrymeeting Bay, for the gathering of witches' covens were often called "merry meetings."

 

Increase Mather observed that demons were "not so frequent in places where the Gospel prevaileth as in the dark corners of the earth," and suggested that these apparitions particularly infested the "East and West Indians" as well as the "popish countries." Maine was a particularly "dark corner" of piety - inhabited by "heathen" Indians, "Papist" Frenchmen, non-Puritan protestants, and Godless fishermen. The Province of Maine had begun life as an Anglican colony that tolerated diverse beliefs, even allowing Reverend John Wheelwright and his Antinomian followers to establish Wells. After Massachusetts absorbed the region in the 1650s, officials had to allow more religious latitude than in Massachusetts proper. Still the presence of Quakers in Maine, such as Bridget Phillips, unnerved the Puritans. Accused of witchcraft, John Alden was also accused of being a Quaker. An denouncer cried out "there stands Aldin, a bold fellow with his Hat on before the judges." Only a Quaker would refuse to offer hat service. Quakers and Antinomians were not the only radical sects in Maine. In the early 1680s the Baptists formed a short-lived congregation in Kittery, and during the witchcraft trials witnesses accused Reverend George Burroughs of being a Baptist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source:  Emerson W. Baker and James Kences, "Maine, Indian Land Speculation, and the Essex County Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692." Maine History, volume 40, number 3, Fall 2001 (pp. 159-189).

 



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