Massasoit: A Story of the Indians of New England - Alma H. Burton

Praying Towns

An Indian erect with an arrow in his right hand, and the motto, "Come over and help us," that was the seal of the colony of Massachusetts.

But until the confederation of the colonies, the English were busy hewing out their homes in the wilderness, and did little to civilize the Indians.

Just about that time Thomas Mayhew purchased Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, where several tribes of Indians dwelt.

His young son, Thomas, formed the plan of educating and converting the Indians. So he built houses, collected the natives about him, and commenced his missionary work.

Hiacoomes was his first convert; but it was with much tribulation that this warrior remained true to the faith.

One chief jeered at him and called him "Englishman," which was enough to wound an Indian who had any pride at all. Another told him it was madness, for a brave with a wife, to break with the old religion. What would he do if his family fell sick, and the powwow of the village refused to help them? Another told him it was infamous to barter thirty-seven gods for one.

This last troubled Hiacoomes greatly, until the Rev. Mayhew convinced him that his one God was worth all the Indian gods put together.

Several schools and churches were established on the islands, and in a few years over a thousand Indians professed to be Christians.

When, at last, the devoted young missionary embarked for Eng land to seek aid in his work, his ship was lost at sea, and he was never seen again. Meanwhile, John Eliot, of Roxbury, had learned the Indian language, that he might preach to the heathen.

But in all his labors with the Indians, Eliot wall opposed by the powwows. These powwows, or medicine men, were fast losing their hold on the tribes of the Massachusetts, and used all their arts to prevent the spread of the new religion.

So Eliot took his converts from the gibes of their companions, and laid out the town of Natick, on the Charles river near Boston, and soon there were four hundred Christians in Natick. They built a fort, a church, and their own houses.

The women were taught to spin, weave, cook and keep house. The men learned to cultivate the orchards, and to sow the small grain.

They followed the long furrows with endless delight, and were very proud of their advanced methods, in spite of the jeering taunts from the unconverted that the white men were turning them into squaws.

Other towns were built for the converts; soon there were fourteen praying towns in Massachusetts.

Money was raised in England to buy the Indians clothing, books, and implements for work.

In summer they gathered, out under the trees, to hear the good Eliot tell about the white man's God. It was a pretty picture which they made in the shadow of the forest.

The women and children sat in a circle on the ground, and the warriors stood up, with arms folded across their chests.

Some wore the skins of beasts, and mantles of feathers, some bright, woolen blankets, and some were dressed like the English.

First they sang a hymn in all sorts of tunes, and prayer was offered. Then the little Indians stood within the circle, and after much twisting of half naked little red bodies, and much digging of toes in the ground, and many shy glances at their proud mothers, they answered the questions of the catechism. No doubt the young rascals were only kept from pursuit of the squirrels, darting past them in the thickets, by their great awe of the white powwow.

After the catechism, questions were allowed. "Was it not strange," the warriors asked, "that the white man's God could be in Massachusetts, and in Connecticut, and in England across the sea, all at one and the same time? The great Manitou of the Indians could only be in one place at a time." "God was so used," they said, "to hearing the English pray, that He could well understand them; but was it likely that He was acquainted with the Indian language?"

To this question Mr. Eliot replied that God had made all things, and all men, not only English, but Indians; and having made them both, he understood them both.

He held up a beautiful basket, and said that the person who made the basket knew the different twigs in it, though others might not.

Sometimes the questions asked were very simple and foolish, and then the Indians themselves would call out, "That is a papoose question!" which meant "Now you talk like a baby!" The colonists felt great pride in the new converts.

Governor Winthrop and others visited the praying towns, and wrote to friends in England of the spread of the Gospel among the heathen. Mr. Eliot determined to give them the Bible in their own language. First he printed a short catechism, and then he printed two hundred New Testaments, in the Algonquin language. He hoped, by this means, to convert all the tribes in New England. But the greater part of the Indians held to the gods of their fathers.

The Narragansetts listened patiently, once a month, to Roger Williams, because they loved him; but few were converted to his faith.

Massasoit remained always the friend of the white men; but said the gods of the Wampanoags were good enough for him.

This great chief was now very old. He had kept all his pledges with the English. He visited the governor at Plymouth every year. He also dressed himself in feathers, paints and wampum; and, with an escort of splendid warriors, made a visit to Governor Winthrop in Boston.

Many interesting stories are told of Massasoit. Once, when Governor Winslow had been to Connecticut, he visited Massasoit on his way home; and, when he was ready to set out on his journey again, the chief offered to be his guide through the forest.

Then he sent a swift courier in advance, who announced in Plymouth that the Governor was dead.

The people mourned bitterly over the loss of the noble man.

But the next day, Massasoit brought Winslow into town, alive and well; and the sorrow was changed to rejoicing.

He then explained, that this was one of the customs of his tribe, in order to cause greater joy over the return of an absent friend.

One of the last acts of the noble Massasoit was, to bring his two oldest sons to Plymouth, that they might renew the pledges which he himself had made to the white men.

And then, in 1661, the honored old chieftain died, and was laid away to rest in the burial-ground of his royal race. He was true to his gods to the last.

A little corn was placed in the grave, to sustain him on the long journey to the Happy Hunting Grounds. His musket, the much-prized red coat, and other presents from the white men, were laid by his side.

But it was the bow and arrow and tomahawk that he wanted close by his hand; for with these he would meet the warriors who had gone on before.