Thomas Morton Reflects on Indians in New England, 1637

Thomas Morton Reflects on Indians in New England, 1637

Thomas Morton both admired and condemned aspects of Native American culture. In his descriptions, we can find not only information about the people he is describing but also a window into the concerns of Englishmen like Morton who could use descriptions of Native Americans as a means of criticizing English culture.

 

“… the hand of God fell heavily upon them, with such a mortal stroke that they died on heaps as they lay in their houses… And the bones and skulls upon the several places of their habitations made such a spectacle after my coming into those parts…”

“The natives of New England are accustomed to build them houses much like the wild Irish; they gather poles in the woods and put the great end of them in the ground, placing them in form of a circle or circumference, and pending the tops of them in form of like an arch, they bind them together with the bark of walnut trees, which is wondrous tough, so that they make the same round on the top for the smoke of their fire to ascend and pass through; these they cover with mats, some made of reeds and some of long flags or sedge, fine sewed together with needles made of the splinter bones of a crane’s leg…”

“… they are willing that any one shall eat with them. Nay, if any one shall come into their houses and there fall asleep, when they see him disposed to lie down, they will spread a mat for him of their own accord… If he sleep until their meat be dished up, they will set a wooden bowl of meat by him that slept and wake him saying “Cattup keene Meckin,” that is, if you be hungry, there is meat for you, where if you will eat you may. Such is their humanity.”

“They use not to winter and summer in one place, for that would be a reason to make fuel scarce; but, after the manner of the gentry in civilized natives, remove for their pleasures, sometimes to their hunting places… and sometimes to their fishing places… and at the spring, when fish comes in plentifully, they have meetings from several places, where they exercise themselves in gaming and playing of juggling tricks and all manner of revels…”

“The Indians in these parts do make their apparel of the skins of several sorts of beasts, and commonly of those that do frequent those parts where they do live; yet some of them, for variety, have the skins of such beasts that frequent the parts of their neighbors, which they purchase of them by commerce and trade.”

“Their women have shoes and stockings to wear likewise when they please, such as the men have, but the mantle they use to cover their nakedness with is much longer than that which they men use; for, as the men have one deer skin, the women have two sewed together at the full length, and it is so large that it trails after them like a great ladies train.”

“their infants are born with hair on their heads, and are of a complexion white as our nation; but their mothers in their infancy make a bath of walnut leaves, husks of walnuts, and such things as will stain their skin forever, wherein they dip and wash them to make them tawny…”

“… the younger are always obedient unto the elder people, and at their commands in every respect without grumbling, in all counsels… the younger men’s opinion shall be heard, but the old men’s opinion and counsel embraced and followed… The consideration of these things, me thinks, should reduce some of our irregular young people of civilized nations, when this story shall come to their knowledge, to better manners, and make them ashamed of their former error in this kind, and to become hereafter more dutiful…”

“… some correspondence they have with the Devil out of all doubt, as by some of their actions, in which they glory, is manifested… A neighbor of mine that had entertained a savage into his service, to be his factor for the beaver trade among his countrymen, delivered unto him diverse parcels of commodities for for them to trade with…

“Powahs, who are usually sent for when any person is sick and ill at ease to recover them, for which they receive rewards as do our surgeons and physicians; and they do make a trade of it, and boast of their skill when they come. One amongst the rest did undertake to cure an Englishman of a swelling of his hand for a parcel of biscuit, which being delivered him he took the party grieved into the woods aside from company, and with the help of the devil (as may be conjectured), quickly recovered him of that swelling, and sent him about his work again.”

“Although these people have not the use of navigation, whereby we may traffic as other nations, that are civilized, use to do, yet do they barter for such commodities as they have, and have a kind of beads, instead of money, to buy withal such things as they want, which they call Wampampeak, and it is of two sorts, the one is white, the other is of a violet color”

“I have observed that the savages have the sense of seeing so far beyond any of our nation, that one would almost believe they had intelligence of the devil sometimes when they have told us of a ship at sea, which they have seen sooner by one hour, yea, two hours sail, than any English man that stood by of purpose to look out, their sight is so excellent.”

“The savages are accustomed to set fire to the country in all places where they come and to burn it twice a year, at the spring and in the fall of the lease. The reason that moves them to do so is because it would otherwise be so overgrown with under-weeds that it would be all a coppice wood and the people would not be able in any wise to pass through the country out of a beaten path.”

“A gentleman and a traveler, that had been in the parts of New England for a time, when he returned again, in his discourse of the country, wondered (as he said) that the natives of the land lived so purely in so rich a country like to our beggars in England… If our beggars of England should, with so much ease as they, furnish themselves with food at all seasons, there would be so many starved in the streets, neither would so many jails be stuffed, or gallows furnished with poor wretches as I have seen.”

“They love not to be encumbered with many utensils and although every proprietor knows his own, yet all things (so long as they will last) are used in common among them; a biscuit cake given to one, that breaks it equally into so many parts as there are persons in his company and distributes it.

“According to human reason, guided only by the light of nature, these people lead the more happy and freer life, being void of care, which torments the minds of many Christians: They are not delighted in baubles, but in useful things.”

 

Thomas Morton, The New English Canaan (Boston: 1883), 132-177.

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