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God, War, and Providence

The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England

About The Book

The tragic and fascinating history of the first epic struggle between white settlers and Native Americans in the early seventeenth century: “a riveting historical validation of emancipatory impulses frustrated in their own time” (Booklist, starred review) as determined Narragansett Indians refused to back down and accept English authority.

A devout Puritan minister in seventeenth-century New England, Roger Williams was also a social critic, diplomat, theologian, and politician who fervently believed in tolerance. Yet his orthodox brethren were convinced tolerance fostered anarchy and courted God’s wrath. Banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, Williams purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and laid the foundations for the colony of Rhode Island as a place where Indian and English cultures could flourish side by side, in peace.

As the seventeenth century wore on, a steadily deepening antagonism developed between an expansionist, aggressive Puritan culture and an increasingly vulnerable, politically divided Indian population. Indian tribes that had been at the center of the New England communities found themselves shunted off to the margins of the region. By the 1660s, all the major Indian peoples in southern New England had come to accept English authority, either tacitly or explicitly. All, except one: the Narragansetts.

In God, War, and Providence “James A. Warren transforms what could have been merely a Pilgrim version of cowboys and Indians into a sharp study of cultural contrast…a well-researched cameo of early America” (The Wall Street Journal). He explores the remarkable and little-known story of the alliance between Roger Williams’s Rhode Island and the Narragansett Indians, and how they joined forces to retain their autonomy and their distinctive ways of life against Puritan encroachment. Deeply researched, “Warren’s well-written monograph contains a great deal of insight into the tactics of war on the frontier” (Library Journal) and serves as a telling precedent for white-Native American encounters along the North American frontier for the next 250 years.


God, War, and Providence Chapter 1 1635: Indians and Puritans, Separate and Together

The early seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Indian importunes the settlers to “come over and help us.” Civilizing and Christianizing the Indians was one of the major rationales for the Bay Colony, but many of the funds designated for Indian instruction were diverted to other projects.

By 1635, two colonies of English Puritans, Plymouth Plantation and Massachusetts Bay Colony, were firmly established along the coast of southern New England. A third colony, made up of perhaps a hundred recent émigrés from Massachusetts and a handful of Plymouth Colony traders, had begun to take shape on the banks of the Connecticut River near the modern city of Hartford, where the Dutch had earlier established a bustling trading post.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth had first arrived in November 1620 aboard the Mayflower. After an extremely hard first winter, during which almost half of the initial one hundred settlers had perished, the plantation—a common seventeenth-century synonym for colony—had grown slowly but steadily to self-sufficiency, thanks in large measure to the able assistance of local native inhabitants, especially Squanto, an English-speaking Indian from the deserted Patuxet village upon which Plymouth was settled, and Massasoit, chief sachem of the Wampanoag confederation. By 1635, Plymouth’s population stood at six hundred.

Squanto had been captured by English explorers around 1614 and taken to Spain to be sold as a slave. He somehow escaped to England and learned the language before being brought back to New England by the merchant Thomas Dermer. All his fellow Patuxets had either died in the epidemic of 1616–19 or fled in its wake. In 1621, Governor William Bradford signed an alliance with Massasoit, granting the tribe exclusive trading rights with the colony, and providing for mutual defense in the not unlikely event of attack from one of the many other Indian tribes in the region.

Massachusetts Bay colonists first settled in the town of Salem, sixty miles north of Plymouth, in 1628, but by the early 1630s, Boston, with its excellent natural harbor, had become the center of colony government and the most populous English town in New England. The contemporary English chronicler William Wood described Boston as “a peninsula hemmed in on the south side with the Bay of Roxbury, on the north side with the Charles River,” and “not troubled with the great annoyances of wolves, rattlesnakes, and mosquitoes.”1 Seven years after its founding, Massachusetts Bay Colony was home to six thousand English people, a good number in Boston itself, the rest dispersed in a handful of small towns ringing Boston proper.

Before the end of the decade, another five thousand English people would brave the Atlantic to settle in New England. Most settled in Massachusetts, which by 1640 had firmly established itself as the dominant and most dynamic of four New England Puritan colonies: Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and tiny New Haven, along the Quinnipiac River, destined to fold into Connecticut in 1662.

Like Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay had been settled on lands cleared and formerly inhabited by Indians—in this case, Massachusetts Indians under the sachem Cutshamakin, and the Pawtuckets under Sagamores John and James. By 1635, the Wampanoags numbered no more than five hundred; the Pawtucket and Massachusetts less than half that number. The great epidemic of 1616–19 had reduced the population of both tribes by as much as 90 percent, and then an outbreak of smallpox in 1633 further reduced their numbers. All these tribes welcomed the newcomers as trading partners, neighbors, and allies who could aid them in turning back raiding parties of the fierce Micmac tribe from northern New England.

The first English settlements of southern New England were surrounded by many other independent Indian bands and several confederations of bands—a grand total, it seems, of fifteen thousand to twenty thousand Indians. The natives spoke slightly different dialects of the same eastern Algonquian language and possessed similar cultures and patterns of subsistence and settlement.

To the west of the traditional lands of the Massachusetts and extending into contemporary northwest Rhode Island were the Nipmucks. Farther west, in the northern Connecticut River valley, dwelled about a thousand Pocumtucks. South of the Pocumtucks, in the Connecticut River valley, lived the Podunks, Sequins, Wangunks, and several other small but strategically significant bands, referred to collectively as River Indians by the English.

East of the River Indians, centered on the Thames and Mystic River valleys respectively, were some three thousand Mohegans and the Pequots. To the east of the Pequots lay the Narragansett confederation. Its territory extended over the entire mainland of contemporary Rhode Island except for its northwest corner; the East Bay, inhabited by Wampanoags; and the larger islands in Narragansett Bay. Their confederation was the largest and most prosperous Indian polity in the region, numbering between seventy-five hundred and ten thousand people.

Southern New England, showing locations of major tribes and colonial boundaries, circa 1660.


Evidence of habitation near the Bay goes back about thirty-seven hundred years, and the remains of a Narragansett village dating from AD 1100 to 1300 have been uncovered by archaeologists recently. Narragansett Bay and its environs were extraordinarily rich in natural resources at the time of the first English settlements in New England. The Indians who dwelled there were masters of all the skills needed to exploit them. Contemporary English observers describe the Narragansetts as peaceable, industrious, and well led by an older sachem of few words and considerable wisdom called Canonicus, and his nephew Miantonomi, who by 1635 had already established a reputation in the region as a discerning and intelligent diplomat.

The first European to encounter the Narragansetts and record his observations was the great Italian navigator-explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who sailed the eastern seaboard of America on behalf of the king of France in a futile search for a Northwest Passage. Even in 1524, the Narragansett predilection for industry and trade was evident. Verrazano’s account of his encounter with the tribe is remarkably vivid in detail and bears repeating at length:

We . . . proceeded to another place, fifteen leagues distant from [Block Island], where we found an excellent harbor [Newport]. Before entering it, we saw about twenty small boats full of people, who came about our ship, uttering many cries of astonishment. . . . Stopping, they looked at the structure of our ship, our persons and dress, afterwards they all raised a loud shout, signifying that they were pleased. . . . Among them were two kings more beautiful in form and stature than can possibly be described; one was about forty years old, the other about twenty-four, and they were dressed in the following manner: The oldest had a deer’s skin around his body, artificially wrought in damask figures, his head was without covering, his hair was tied back in various knots; around his neck he wore a large chain ornamented with many stones of different colors. The young man was similar in appearance.

This is the finest looking tribe, and the handsomest in their costumes, we have found in our voyage. They exceed us in size, and they are of a very fair complexion; some of them incline more to a white and others to a tawny color; their faces are sharp; their hair long and black, upon the adorning of which they bestow great pains; their eyes are black and sharp, their expression mild and pleasant. . . .

They are very generous, giving away whatever they have. . . . We often went five or six leagues into the interior, and found country as pleasant as is possible to conceive, adapted to cultivation of every kind, whether of corn, wine, or oil; there are open plains twenty-five or thirty leagues in extent, entire free from trees or other hindrances. . . . The animals, which are in great numbers . . . are taken in snares, and by bows, the latter being their chief implement.2

The word Narragansett as used in this book has two distinct but closely related meanings. It refers in its narrower sense to a core group of some four thousand Indians dispersed in as many as twenty villages throughout the southern half of the Rhode Island mainland, and in a broader sense to a larger political entity known to the English of the seventeenth century as a great sachemdom—a loose confederation of Indian bands and tribes. The Narragansett confederation took in the Narragansetts themselves and a number of tributary tribes, including the Cowesett and Shawomet to the north, some Nipmuck bands to the northwest, and the Eastern Niantic to the south, in the areas we now know as Westerly and Charlestown, Rhode Island. Ties of kinship between the Narragansetts and the Eastern Niantics were especially strong.

All these tribes had close social and commercial ties to the Narragansetts, but each had its own sachem—often called a minor, or local, sachem by the English. He, or, in a handful of cases, she, was responsible for governing the internal affairs of the group. The independence of the local sachems in the Narragansett confederation had begun to diminish somewhat in the 1620s, as trade with the Dutch and the English became an increasingly important source of wealth for the Indians. By the mid-1630s, an emerging Indian-English-Dutch market economy, centered largely on the exchange of furs and foodstuffs for European goods, led to the concentration of political and commercial authority in the hands of Canonicus and Miantonomi.

Algonquian sachems, Narragansett and otherwise, almost always owed their positions to family descent. It fell to the great sachem to make all the critical decisions for his subjects, albeit with the advice of the minor sachems, a council of elders, and one or more powwows—men who presided over various rituals and tended to both the spiritual and bodily health of the people. Indians looked to their great sachem to dispense justice, mediate disputes between bands, allocate farming and hunting lands, conduct diplomacy with outsiders, and organize group activities, especially the seasonal migrations between the coast and the inland forests, and warfare. In exchange for protection and leadership, Miantonomi and Canonicus received allegiance and payments from their tributaries, as well as from their own local bands in the villages of southern Rhode Island.

Allegiance to the great sachem, however, was contingent on his ability to keep the local sachems and their subjects reasonably content through gift-giving and consensus building, and responsive leadership. Disaffected minor chiefs could alter the balance of power between the major Indian tribes by shifting their allegiance from one great sachem to another.

Political and social ties among the Algonquians were protean—which caused no small amount of confusion and frustration for Europeans. When individual Indians in Narragansett territory committed criminal acts or violated Indian-Puritan agreements, the English authorities would customarily go over the heads of the local sachems and seek satisfaction from Canonicus and Miantonomi directly. Much to the frustration of the English authorities, their ability to do so was often circumscribed by the power minor sachems enjoyed over members of their own bands, as well as by the ease with which unattached males, and even on occasion entire nuclear families, could migrate from one band to another.

The Narragansetts, like all southern New England Indians, were farmers and fishermen as well as hunters and gatherers. Each spring men and women worked together to clear new fields close to the coastline, cutting down trees, and breaking up the soil with clamshells and stone hoes. Women planted, nurtured, and harvested the staple crops of squash, beans, and corn, and they gathered fruit, nuts, and plants for both sustenance and medicinal purposes.

Puritans stereotyped Indian men as lazy, yet it’s clear that men took on the hard labor of clearing the fields when new farming plots were needed. Narragansett men were also skilled trappers and hunters of deer, rabbits, beaver, and otter. Deer was by far the most important source of meat for the tribe. In the winter, hunting parties of as many as several hundred men roamed the forest, driving deer in the direction of a large V-shaped, funneled trap leading to a corral, where they could be easily dispatched with bow and arrow. Before the hunt, carefully controlled fires were set to clear away underbrush. While the cleared ground made hunting quite a bit easier, it did no permanent harm to the maple, oak, cedar, and pine trees. In fact, by decreasing the competition for nutrients in the soil, it enhanced the growth of the larger trees.

Pigeons, waterfowl, and turkeys formed a regular part of the Narragansett Indian diet and were found in numbers that astonished the English. Men fished with weirs, nets, and harpoons, both in Narragansett Bay proper and in the many fresh- and saltwater ponds and rivers in their territory. Shellfish, quahogs, and mussels were collected along the shoreline, usually by women, throughout the year.

Seaworthy dugout canoes carved out of the trunks of large hardwood trees were used for open-water fishing and travel between the mainland of Narragansett country and the islands in the Bay. These craft could transport as many as thirty Indians across miles of open ocean, even in blustery seas. The canoes were among the most striking examples of an Indian technology that proved far superior to its English counterpart in the New World environment. Roger Williams reported that the Narragansetts even knew how to rig a sail made of English cloth on a small pole in their canoes to gain speed.

Despite the hunting prowess of Narragansett men, corn was the staple of the tribe’s diet. It was consumed in stews with beans, squash, fish, and meat. Cakes were also made from cornmeal, which was stored for winter consumption in great quantities in baskets buried in the ground.

Among the many groups of Algonquian Indians, the Narragansett distinguished themselves not only as traders, but as manufacturers. Narragansett baskets, woven by women, were highly prized throughout the region. Women prepared furs for both personal clothing and for trade. Men fashioned widely regarded pipes for tobacco they grew for their own consumption, as well as axes, chisels, hoes, and arrows made of stone and, later, European metals.

The coastline of Narragansett country was overrun with quahog and whelk, the raw material used for drilling and minting shell beads called wampum. Wampum had great symbolic and ceremonial value to all Algonquians long before Europeans arrived on the scene. It was given as tribute, to confirm agreements between native peoples, and worn as jewelry by individuals to designate authority and prestige. Shortly after the first English settlements in New England took root, wampum became the chief medium of exchange in the emerging European-Indian trade network. Vast stores of the stuff were traded by Narragansetts to the Indians in the hinterlands to the west and north in exchange for furs; the furs were exchanged with both the Dutch and the English for iron and steel knives, hoes and axes, brass pots, decorative beads and trinkets, cloth, firearms, and liquor. Almost all the metal objects used by Indians in New England in the seventeenth century “were of European origin,” writes scholar Patrick M. Malone, “and they were made of various metals, including cast iron, wrought iron, steel, brass, copper and lead, among others.”3

By entering into the market economy associated with the fur trade, the Narragansetts gained substantial purchasing power, which allowed them to obtain European versions of tools they had previously obtained only through their own labor-intensive manufacturing. Thus, the emerging market economy fostered growing dependency on the English and the Dutch, as well as a gradual decline in traditional subsistence patterns and skills, complicating relationships between Europeans and Indians, and between Indian tribes, in many unforeseen ways.


Geologists call Narragansett Bay an estuary, meaning a partially enclosed body of salty water into which freshwater rivers and streams drain, with a mouth on the open sea. The Bay is blessed with scores of coves, natural harbors, and shallow, smaller estuaries, with tidal pools and marshlands, and is gently rimmed by rocky coastlines and hardwood forests. Several navigable rivers drain into its waters from the hinterlands. In the seventeenth century a well-traveled network of trails amid the forests of New England permitted rapid movement on foot between various Indian bands and villages. The main artery of this trail network ran from the Pequot country in the southwest, straight through Narragansett country along the western coast of the Bay, and then all the way up to Massachusetts territory, near Boston, generally following the course of what is today Route 1, along the Old Post Road.

The Bay in the seventeenth century was easily accessible by overland and ocean travel, and well protected from the open ocean. Between its eastern and western shores lies an archipelago of some thirty islands. The largest of these—Aquidneck, Conanicut, and Prudence Islands—were usually inhabited by Narragansett bands in the spring and summer months. Dutch Island, between the mainland and Conanicut Island, served as a trading post before the arrival of permanent English settlers in the 1630s.

Unlike the English settlers in New England, observes historian William Cronon, the Indians “held their demands on the ecosystem to a minimum by moving their settlements from habitat to habitat. . . . By using species when they were most plentiful, Indians made sure no single species became overused. It was a way of life to match the patchwork of the landscape. . . . Just as a fox’s summer diet of fruit and insects shifts to rodents and birds during the winter, so too did the New England Indians seek to obtain their food wherever it was seasonally most concentrated.”4 Narragansett Indian territory contained a diversity of lush ecosystems. Each of these—forest, river, lake and pond, the deep salt waters of the Bay itself—provided a wealth of flora and fauna at different times of the year. Cod, striped bass, shellfish, and deer were especially plentiful. The Narragansetts used what they needed, no more, harvesting only when resources were plentiful. So their footprint on their environment was light.

The Narragansetts, like other Algonquians, lived within prescribed boundaries, but they moved their villages with the seasons to best exploit nature’s bounty. In the fall and winter months, for the most part, they inhabited inland villages, amid the forests, though some hunting parties established temporary living quarters far afield from the main villages and lived in those camps for several weeks at a time. In the spring, the Narragansetts broke down their dwellings, packed their gear and goods, including mats made of earth, thatch, and bark used to cover sapling-framed wigwams, and trekked back to the coast, where they laid out new villages and cleared fresh fields or replanted old ones.

Winter villages were often located in shallow valleys for protection from the weather, where firewood was plentiful. Winter dwellings were considerably larger than summer ones, which were typically only sixteen to eighteen feet in diameter and housed a single family. Many winter homes were not wigwams, but longhouses up to a hundred feet long, with three or four fireplaces and roof vents placed at intervals. They could house as many as fifty people.

The Narragansetts had a rich spiritual life, but no formal, organized religion. Spirits permeated everyday activities and events, lending them meaning and purpose. The presence of spirits and gods explained good fortune as well as bad, and natural phenomena such as the stars, the wind, the sea, birds, and other animals were all invested with spiritual power. A nightmare signaled the gods’ unhappiness; good fortune, their pleasure.

The Narragansetts had a panoply of spirit-gods but only one creator—Cautantowwit. According to Roger Williams, “Cautantowwit made one man and woman of a stone, which disliking, he broke them into pieces, and made another man and woman of a tree, which were the fountains of all mankind.”5 People who led good and useful lives returned to Cautantowwit’s home in the southwest after death; the unworthy were destined to wander forlornly in the cosmos. Narragansett dead were usually buried in the fetal position, with the head facing toward Cautantowwit’s home.

According to Williams, the Narragansett had a legend concerning the origin of corn and bean agriculture. A crow brought a single grain of corn in one ear and a single bean in another “from Cautantowwit, the great southwest god, to whose house all souls go, and from whom came their corn and beans.”6

Whenever the Indians came across something they found remarkable or admirable, they were inclined to speak in spiritual terms to explain it. As Williams wrote, “There is a general custom amongst them, at the apprehension of any excellence in men, women, birds, beasts, fish, etc. to cry out Manittoo, a God, and therefore when they talk amongst themselves of the English ships, and great buildings, of the plowing of the fields, and especially of books and letters, they will end thus: maniitowock, they are gods.”7

All the Algonquian of southern New England displayed remarkable loyalty and generosity toward family members and fellow band members. “These Indians,” writes the early English chronicler William Wood,

are of affable, courteous, and well-disposed natures, ready to communicate the best of their wealth to the mutual good of one another; and the less abundance they have to manifest their entire friendship, so much the more perspicuous is their love in that they are willing to part with their mite in poverty as treasure in plenty. . . . Such is their love to one another that they cannot endure to see their countrymen wronged, but will stand stiffly in their defense. 8


Situated between the Massachusetts Indians to the north, the Wampanoags to the east, and the Pequots and Mohegans to the west, the Narragansetts occupied a strategic location in regional power politics and commerce. From the very first contact between the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the tribe, there was a strong undercurrent of wariness over the other’s intentions, and in retrospect, it seems Miantonomi and Canonicus perceived earlier than most other sachems in the region the potential dangers posed by the newcomers, with their strange notions of land ownership, their firearms, and their books, which were objects of great awe, for they seemed to contain an immense fountain of both spiritual and temporal knowledge.

Unlike the vulnerable Wampanoags or the Massachusetts Indians, whose numbers had been drastically reduced by plague, the Narragansetts were not (initially, at least) disposed to see a formal alliance with the English as inherently beneficial. Because of the vitality of their confederation, their active trade with the Dutch, and their strategic locale, Miantonomi and Canonicus could afford to wait and see about establishing formal relationships with the nascent English colonies.

The sachems, however, were none too pleased about the Wampanoag-Plymouth alliance, for the Narragansetts had long squabbled over territory at the head of Narragansett Bay with the Wampanoags, and the advantages of the exclusive trading arrangement Massasoit had arranged with the English were many. Not only did that agreement appear to all but close the door on direct Narragansett-Plymouth trade; it strengthened the Wampanoags’ political influence and prestige in the region considerably, as Indian bands in the vicinity of Plymouth, as well as those on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, now looked to conduct trade with the Pilgrims through Wampanoag intermediaries.

Not long after learning of the agreement, Canonicus sent a war party to support a raid on Massasoit’s home village of Sowams, near Warren, Rhode Island, undertaken by a disgruntled Wampanoag minor sachem named Corbitant. Corbitant’s force captured two of Massasoit’s chief liaisons with the Pilgrims. One of these men, Hobbamock, escaped his captors, fleeing to Plymouth for help. Governor Bradford quickly responded, sending Captain Myles Standish, the fiery Pilgrim military commander, to the rescue along with fourteen troops. After a desultory engagement, Corbitant and the Narragansetts withdrew, releasing the other Wampanoag captive. Plymouth and Massasoit had gotten the better of the Narragansetts—this time, anyway.

Canonicus soon thereafter signaled both his displeasure and resolve by sending a bundle of arrows in a snakeskin to Governor William Bradford of Plymouth. Canonicus stood ready to protect his own people and the Narragansett alliance system against Puritan-Wampanoag encroachment. Bradford recognized the gesture for what it was, promptly filled the snakeskin with powder and shot, and sent it back to Canonicus, who refused to accept it. Nothing was to come of this incident, but it seems an apt symbol for the vexed nature of Puritan-Narragansett relations in the years to follow. “Through their mutual act of rejection,” writes anthropologist Paul Robinson, “each party signified its refusal to submit to the other.”9

Southern New England in the early 1630s was in constant flux as the larger Indian tribes jostled to gain both control over smaller bands as well as favorable trade and defense alliances with European traders and colonies. Initially, at least, the Narragansetts seemed to get along much better with the colonists of Massachusetts Bay than they did with those of Plymouth. Due to its greater size and commercial dynamism, good relations with Massachusetts could more than offset whatever advantages accrued to the Wampanoag as a result of their arrangement with Governor Bradford. Miantonomi made the first of many visits to Boston in the summer of 1631. Arriving with his ally, the Massachusetts sachem Cutshamakin, as an intermediary, Miantonomi brought an animal skin for Governor John Winthrop, who requited the gift “with a fair pewter pot, which [Miantonomi] took very thankfully, and stayed all night.”10

From many sources, we know that the Narragansetts had developed a wide-ranging trading network with fur-hunting peoples to the west, including the Nipmucks, the Pocumtucks, and, even farther to the west, the fierce and powerful Mohawks. William Wood tells us that in the early 1630s the Narragansetts regularly brought beaver, otter, and muskrat pelts to Massachusetts Bay, “returning back loaded with English commodities, of which they made a double profit by selling them to more remote Indians who are ignorant at what cheap rates they obtain them.”11

The Massachusetts Bay trader John Oldham had established close trading ties with the Narragansett sachems by early 1634. Oldham was even permitted by the sachems to set up a trading post on Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay. Oldham was killed by Indians two years later, and the island was subsequently purchased jointly by Roger Williams and John Winthrop from the Narragansetts and used for the raising of cattle and swine.


The first Puritans had come to America from England after a long stay in Holland. However, most Pilgrims came to the New World directly from England to escape both religious persecution at the hands of an English king and a church they saw as afflicted with corruption, and the social dislocation caused by that nation’s emerging market economy, with its calamitous price fluctuations and periodic depressions.

The Church of England was run by a hierarchy of bishops and priests more concerned with the worldly trappings of their offices than with what the Puritans understood to be the central business of life: preparation for redemption and salvation through Christ. Worship in the Church of England was decidedly short on good preaching and piety, both of which formed the bedrock of Puritan faith. The Church of England’s services were organized around the Book of Common Prayer, a work containing the words of men, not God. Many of the rituals and forms of worship it prescribed bore the marks of medieval Catholicism, a religious tradition Puritans found at odds with the pure and simple church originally established by Jesus and His apostles.

To the Puritans, true worship involved direct engagement with the Bible, the revealed word of God. The Bible provided all the guidance human beings required to live on earth in a God-fearing and upright way. It was the key to all history, past and present. It gave life meaning and purpose. The Puritans journeyed across the North Atlantic to join with others already engaged in constructing a pious community based on biblical imperatives, dedicated, in the words of Governor John Winthrop’s classic sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” “to serve the Lord and work out our Salvation under the power and purity of His holy ordinances.”12 In short, Massachusetts was to become a model Christian commonwealth of close-knit towns, farms, and churches.

The Puritans were intensely preoccupied with salvation. It was probably the most important word in their vocabulary, the end for which they organized their individual and collective lives. What distinguished Puritans from other Englishmen, the historian Edmund Morgan observes, was “a deeper sense among Puritans of the great obstacle that lay between man and salvation.” That obstacle was man’s innate depravity, the stain on his soul that made him self-serving, lascivious, lazy, and greedy. “The Puritans insisted that man must keep the obstacle in full view and recognize that no saint or angel, no church or priest, could carry him over it.”13 Salvation could not be achieved through a person’s own effort, but only through the grace of Christ, which came but to a few people, and even they could never be entirely sure about the matter.

Nonetheless, Puritans generally believed that one could approach saving grace through a series of prescribed steps that moved from acceptance of one’s depravity, to contrition and humiliation, which, in turn, opened the door for the power of the Holy Spirit to transform the person through “saving grace” from sinner to “visible sainthood,” and thus, full membership in God’s church. Although God did not necessarily reward upright behavior with salvation, He surely smiled on those who shunned frivolous pursuits in favor of a life of industry, frugality, and charity.

Thus, the Puritans famously sacralized work, extending the religious concept of a minister’s “calling” to the everyday labor of ordinary people. Edward Winslow, one of the leaders of the Plymouth Colony, got to the heart of the matter when he wrote that in the Puritan vision of New England, “religion and profit jump together.”14 Diligence, humility, integrity, self-discipline, and piety—these were the indispensable assets of the godly in the great struggle against the sway of the Antichrist.

Puritan values helped the colonists prosper in an unfamiliar and demanding land, and they “developed a culture that was both the most entrepreneurial and the most vociferously pious in Anglo-America,” historian Alan Taylor astutely observes. “Puritans worked with a special zeal to honor their God and seek rewards that offered reassurance that God approved of their efforts.” New England’s well-ordered towns, farms, workshops, churches, and schools “constituted the Puritans’ effort to glorify God.”15 The intense desire to close the gap between man and salvation was the engine propelling Puritan thought about this world, the next, and the relation between the two. It shaped the demanding Puritan moral code; it drove myriad debates about seemingly obscure theological points, causing Puritan churches to multiply by dividing. And it infused the powerful reform impulses that put Puritanism on a collision course with royal authority and traditional English institutions, culminating in the English Civil War of the 1640s.

Although King James I viewed Puritanism with great skepticism, he reluctantly tolerated its growing presence among clergy in Anglican parishes throughout the country. Not so his son and successor, Charles I, whose strong Catholic sympathies led to the dismissal of Puritan clergy, and then to outright persecution of Puritan laypeople. Under Archbishop William Laud, a great enthusiast for Catholic ritual and ceremony in worship, Puritan tracts were censured, and their authors sometimes pilloried and imprisoned.

In 1629, Charles dissolved Parliament and stepped up the persecution of Puritan congregations, opening the floodgates of the Great Migration to New England. Most of these émigrés joined their countrymen at home in believing that England was, and would remain, the world’s indispensable nation, but Puritans alone believed themselves “destined to lead the world back to God’s true religion and end the tyranny of the Antichrist.”16 Despite the depth of Puritan convictions, and they were profoundly deep, a strong current of anxiety ran through the Puritan mind, borne of uncertainty as to how to fulfill the mission. Was it necessary to form an entirely new church in the New World, or was it enough to work to reform that English church from within—even if the nature of the reforms needed to be worked out across three thousand miles of ocean?

Puritans differed on this key issue. The leaders of Plymouth had opted to separate from the Church of England and create their own church in the wilderness of the New World. The leaders of Massachusetts Bay took a different tack. They would stay within the Church of England, seeking to reform it from within by way of example, but do so far enough away from England to minimize external interference.

Most Puritans who came to America hailed from small, close-knit villages in England of about seventy families or so. When they crossed the Atlantic, they attempted to replicate these communities in the New World. The colony government allocated townships to groups of households who had just arrived from England, or to groups from crowded, older towns in New England. Houses were built close together, often centered around a village square, where the meetinghouse was used for both church services and town meetings. Fields lay near the town center and were distributed according to socioeconomic status and family size.

In Massachusetts, governmental power was in the hands of the General Court—what Minister John Cotton rightly called a “mixed aristocracy”—consisting in the early days of a governor, deputy governor, and eighteen assistants. The assistants were chosen by all freemen in the colony who were church members—perhaps 70 percent of adult males. Assistants alone chose the governor and the deputy governor. A bit later, the makeup of the General Court was expanded to include representatives from each town, called deputies.

The General Court had both legislative and judicial functions, and while technically all church members were potential magistrates, invariably men of some wealth and educational achievement were chosen to lead, not only in Massachusetts, but in all the Puritan colonies. “In fact,” writes historian Francis Bremer, “the broad franchise was instituted more for the purpose of binding the people to their government than to encourage the expression of popular views. God . . . had chosen the few to lead the many.”17

While church and state in the Puritan colonies were separate institutions, they were in practice intimately related and mutually reinforcing in preserving both social order and religious conformity. Every town established its own independent church. Principles of town and colony government were firmly rooted in Scripture. The General Court was a civil institution, but one of its most important functions was to ensure religious uniformity. It fell to the court, not the church, to banish unrepentant religious dissidents and punish Sabbath breakers, for they threatened to bring God’s wrath down on the entire community.

Ministers were prohibited from holding civil offices, but they exercised a great deal of political power. They could excommunicate freemen from the church, thereby stripping them of the vote, and magistrates invariably sought spiritual guidance from ministers and church elders when faced with any important political or military decision. More often than not, the advice provided was a crucial factor in decision making.

Having firmly established themselves on the coast of New England by the mid-1630s, the Puritans were remarkably quick to repress those among them who failed to adhere to the demanding religious and social code promulgated by a small group of like-minded magistrates and clergy. Liberty—liberty in the modern sense of the word, meaning to do what one chose, as one saw fit—was to the Puritan elite’s way of thinking a dangerous thing. People left to their own devices would inevitably fall prey to sin and depravity. True liberty, wrote Winthrop, meant “liberty to that only which is good,” and “to quietly and cheerfully submit unto that authority which is set over you.”18

“The few” who were thought capable of holding positions of political leadership were by and large an austere and determined lot, men who took their positions seriously and did not suffer fools—or slackers—gladly. John Endicott, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, was a strict disciplinarian and former soldier, quick to take offense if his judgment was brought into question. Thomas Dudley, the deputy governor for many of the early years in Massachusetts, had been steward of the Earl of Lincoln and prided himself on extricating his employer from debt by raising the rents of the tenant farmers, despite a looming depression and a steep decline in the price of crops. Dudley, cold and literal-minded, was frequently annoyed by Winthrop’s willingness to compromise or to show leniency in judging minor infractions of the law.

The dominant political figures in the early history of Plymouth and Massachusetts, William Bradford and John Winthrop respectively, were exceptional men, gifted with uncommon intelligence and discernment. As long-serving governors who wielded extraordinary power even within the small circle of those deigned fit to govern, both men proved themselves outstanding administrators, judges, and politicians. Each man presided over a formidable array of disputes and challenges, ranging from the proper distribution of governmental power, to the regulation of prices and wages, to the colonies’ often vexed relations with Indian peoples.

Born in 1590 in the Yorkshire village of Austerfield to a family of well-off farmers, Bradford knew tragedy early in life. He lost both parents before he was twelve. Raised by two uncles, he became a devout Puritan separatist before turning fifteen. Though he never attended university, Bradford was an autodidact who read widely and voraciously. He earned a reputation early on among the Pilgrims as a man of both thought and action, and he was an unusually keen judge of character.

After Plymouth’s first governor, John Carver, died in the great sickness of 1620–21, Bradford was elected governor, then reelected each year for a decade. Time and again during the first years of the struggling colony, Bradford displayed personal courage, an abiding commitment to fairness and justice, and, perhaps most important, the ability to make quick, defensible decisions in crises. When a poorly prepared colony of English (i.e., non-Puritan) settlers at nearby Wessagusset (later renamed Weymouth) mistreated and stole from the Massachusetts Indians, Bradford learned from Massasoit that the tribe was plotting a surprise attack on both Wessagusset and Plymouth.

Considerably outnumbered by the hostile Indians, Bradford immediately recognized the crucial importance of responding quickly, and with decisive force—not only to preempt the impending attack, but to signal to all the Indians in the area Plymouth’s resolve to defend itself vigorously in the face of conspiracy, despite its tiny numbers. Bradford ordered Myles Standish to plan and execute a surprise attack against the Massachusetts ringleaders. In March 1623, Standish did so, killing seven or eight Indians and scattering a score of others into a swamp. Soon thereafter the Massachusetts sachems sued for peace with Plymouth, and peace was to prevail between the Massachusetts and Plymouth for the rest of the seventeenth century.

It was Bradford, too, who extricated the colony from near financial ruin by negotiating with the key investors in England when the colony failed to turn a profit in the early years. He proved as adept at resolving internal squabbles and disputes as he was at guiding the colony’s peaceful relations with the Wampanoags.

A man of considerable literary talents, in his book Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford charts the evolution of the colony from 1620 to 1646 with clarity and penetrating insight into its failures as well as its successes. Bradford writes that he attempted to tell the story of the colony “in a plain style, with simple regard unto the simple truth in all things,” as far as his “slender judgment” allowed.19 But as events proved year in and year out, there was nothing “slender” about Bradford’s judgment, or his character.

John Winthrop was one of the wealthiest and best-educated men to cross the Atlantic in the Great Migration. A third-generation son of landed gentry in Suffolk, he attended Cambridge, was admitted to Gray’s Inn in London to study law in 1613, and returned to Suffolk in 1617, where he served as justice of the peace and lord of Groton, the family manor. Intensely religious, Winthrop struggled long and hard with how best he might serve God. After a considerable internal struggle, he came to believe that a person who sought “sure peace and joy in Christianity, must not aim at a condition retired from the world and free from temptations, but to know that the life which is most exercised with trials and temptations is the sweetest. . . . For such trials as fall within compass of our callings, it is better to arm and understand them than to avoid and shun them.”20

Winthrop certainly lived his life in New England with this belief firmly fixed in his mind. By the time he was elected governor by members of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629, “his long struggle with his passions,” writes biographer Edmund Morgan, “had left him master of himself in a way few men ever achieve. The fire was still there, and blown up by other men’s wrath, it would occasionally burst out, but generally it lay well below the surface, imparting a warmth and power which everyone around him sensed. He never grasped for authority . . . [as] he was the kind of man upon whom authority was inevitably thrust.”21

As both governor and assistant on the General Court, John Winthrop showed great tact and flexibility in mediating disputes both within the colony and among all the Puritan colonies, once they formed the Confederation of New England in 1643. But his supreme confidence in his ability to judge which kinds of institutions and ideas were congenial to God’s wishes predisposed him to encourage intolerance among the magistrates for religious as well as political dissent.

As for the Indians, those tribes that readily submitted to Puritan jurisdiction and agreed to abide by English regulations he generally treated with courtesy and respect. But Indians who clung tenaciously to their own traditions and refused to defer to Puritan authority—as the Narragansetts so frequently did—were a different matter. As we shall see, there are compelling reasons to believe that Winthrop’s seemingly judicious, well-crafted accounts of disputes between Puritans and Indians are peppered with distortions and curious omissions, especially in incidents where Indians put forward compelling defenses of their own sovereignty and autonomy. Unfortunately, every student of Puritan-Indian relations trying to find his bearings must rely heavily on Winthrop’s writings, for in a great many cases his account of a given dispute or event is the only one we have.

The first scholar to bring this uncomfortable issue widely into the light was Francis Jennings, in his provocative book The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, published in 1975. Professor Jennings has some crucially important things to say about Winthrop’s Journal, widely recognized as the quasi-official history of the early years of Massachusetts Bay Colony:

An unbeliever could say that it presented history with a slant. An investigator may add that it is curiously selective and that the documents [concerning Indian relations] interpreted by Winthrop have a high mortality rate. Especially as regards Indian affairs, his interpretations have to be accepted in lieu of the prime sources [i.e., the actual texts of agreements] because of the latter’s disappearance. In the tons of paper squirreled away by Winthrop and his descendants, the only text of an Indian treaty surviving his lifetime [is the 1645 treaty with the Narragansetts]. . . . The process of natural selection by which [the other treaties] became unfit to survive must be a matter of speculation, but one can say with confidence that the interpretations provided in Winthrop’s [Journal] are unlikely to be accurate representations of the vanished texts. All this sounds like innuendo so let it be said forthrightly: Winthrop probably rewrote the substance of Indian treaties to meet the Puritans’ political and ideological needs, and then he or a devoted descendant destroyed the originals.22

No one can prove that Jennings is correct, but for two reasons his thesis bears keeping in mind in understanding the struggle between the Narragansetts and the Puritans. First, many contemporary historians and other scholars who have sought to recover the Indians’ side of the story through the use of archaeological and anthropological evidence believe Jennings’s assessment is largely correct. And second, Jennings’s thesis goes far in explaining quite a number of otherwise inexplicable actions and decisions.


By 1635, the Puritans and the Indians in southern New England had for the most part established friendly, mutually beneficial relationships. Indian assistance had proved indispensable in ensuring the survival and growth of the two colonies. Contrary to widespread expectations, writes William Wood, the Indians proved “very hospitable, insomuch that when the English have traveled forty, fifty, or threescore miles into the country, they have entertained them in their houses . . . providing the best victuals they could, expressing their welcome in as good terms as could be expected. . . . The doubtful traveler hath often been much beholding to them for their guidance through the unbeaten wilderness.”23

Despite the spirit of amity, latent forces and ideas were at work that threatened to transform the Indian-Puritan relationship from one of cooperation and friendship to one marred by misunderstanding, conflict, and for the Indians, an enduring sense of betrayal. The Puritan commitment to treat the Indian justly and equitably was unquestionably sincere during the critical early years of settlement. But that commitment diminished markedly over time. Conventional Puritan conceptions of Indian culture and character meant that, in the long run, the Indians would find justice and fair treatment at the hands of the newcomers to be elusive.

In journeying to the New World, recalled William Bradford, the Pilgrims expected to face “the continual danger of the savage people; who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.” The English believed they could expect little mercy from natives who “delight to torment men in the most bloody manner that may be; flaying some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting off the members and joints of others by piecemeal and broiling on the coals, eat the collops of their flesh in their sight whilst they live, with other cruelties too horrible to be related.”24

The Puritan mind was Calvinistic, and Calvin saw the world as a struggle between the light of Christ and His people against infidels and pagans who, wittingly or unwittingly, served the devil, the Antichrist. The American Indians were such people, in this view. They were “barbarians”—wild, illiterate savages given to indolence, lying, and treachery.

The Puritans went to great pains to avoid the corruption and lassitude they imagined to come with extended contact with the Indian way of life, particularly their spiritual life, in which shamans (usually called powwows) presided over mysterious ceremonies, invoking the powers of a bewildering array of spirits and gods that inhabited animals and other natural phenomena. According to anthropologist William Simmons, the Puritans “believed that the Indian inhabitants worshiped devils, that Indian religious practitioners were witches, and that the Indians themselves were bewitched. . . . Unlike Indian beliefs about the supernatural qualities of Englishmen, which seemed to have been temporary and situational, Puritan commitment to the devil-and-witchcraft theory of Indian culture intensified rather than diminished with experience.”25

The Puritans had also developed a cluster of ideas about their legal right to establish and expand their Holy Commonwealths within lands under the jurisdiction of one Indian sachem or another. Any patent issued by the English government granting its possessor political and legal jurisdiction was assumed to trump the rights of all Indian sachems within the boundaries prescribed by the document.

The Puritans looked to both biblical sources and the legal doctrine of vacuum domicilium to justify the occupation of Indian lands they claimed to find unoccupied and unimproved by the earnest labors of men. The doctrine was simple: lands not cultivated or “improved” in the English fashion were free for the taking. Puritan Robert Cushman noted that the Indians’ “land is spacious and void, and there are few and [they] do but run over the grass as do also the foxes and wild beasts. They are not industrious, neither have [they] art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it, but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, etc.”26

John Winthrop, in explaining vacuum domicilium, extended Cushman’s thought, with unsettling repercussions for Indian sachems who understood themselves to hold jurisdiction over well-demarcated territories used for hunting and gathering as well as settlement: “As for the Natives of New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land by, and so have no other than a natural right to those countries, so as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest.”27 And so they did, though typically not before offering token compensation to Indians who “pretended” to have title to land they wanted for themselves to “avoid the least scruple of intrusion.”28 Ominously for the Indians, the Puritans appointed themselves the judges of how much land the Indians required. And in matters of dispute between Indians and Puritans, the final arbiters were always English courts and magistrates.

Among the most daunting and important tasks of building the Holy Commonwealths was to bring Christ and His blessings to the Indians. In the Puritan mind, Christ’s blessings were inextricably tied to the adoption of the institutions, ideas, and patterns of life associated with English civilization. Thus, conversion required that the Indian not only jettison his religion, but his political allegiance and his entire mode of subsistence, and take up the manners and mores of the English.

What if the powerful Indians who occupied lands beyond Plymouth and the first towns of Massachusetts Bay, lands where the Holy Commonwealths envisaged expansion, proved hostile? What if the Indians refused to see the light and relinquish their heathen ways and their strange world of spirits and devils for the blessings of Christ and civilization?

The answer to that question was simple: it could not be allowed to happen. If reason, preaching, or diplomacy could not bring the Indians around, then military conquest was the only answer. Thus, even as the English sought “fair” trade arrangements, even as they purchased lands from both individual Indian occupants and sachems (who exercised dominion over well-defined territories) and entered into legally binding agreements with native peoples, they began to devise a variety of strategies to subdue the most powerful Indian tribes whose territories lay outside the boundaries of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. The primary target areas for expansion as of 1635 were eastern Connecticut and the lands around Narragansett Bay.

In Connecticut, the Puritans would succeed within a mere three years through a combination of alliances with local Indians and force of arms. Around Narragansett Bay, the Puritan quest for domination in political jurisdiction and occupancy would fail, but not for want of trying. The story of resistance to Puritan expansion around Narragansett Bay begins with the arrival in the New World of a Puritan minister of uncommon courage and imagination—a man who would in time become the founder of the first English settlement there: Roger Williams.

About The Author

Photograph by Lynn Ho

James A. Warren is a historian and foreign policy analyst. A regular contributor to The Daily Beast, he is the author of God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New EnglandAmerican Spartans: The US Marines: A Combat History from Iwo Jima to Iraq; and The Lions of Iwo Jima: The Story of Combat Team 28 and the Bloodiest Battle in Marine Corps History (with Major General Fred Haynes, USMC-RET), among other books. For many years, Warren was an acquisitions editor at Columbia University Press, and more recently a visiting scholar in American Studies at Brown University. He lives in Saunderstown, Rhode Island.

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Raves and Reviews

“Warren’s well-written monograph contains a great deal of insight into the tactics of war on the frontier.” Library Journal

“In the long and sorrowful history of Native American resistance to white encroachment, no episode raises more perplexing questions than that in which the Narragansett tribe forged a seventeenth-century alliance with the white religious dissidents of Rhode Island for their mutual protection against New England’s Puritans…A riveting historical validation of emancipatory impulses frustrated in their own time.” —Booklist, starred review

“Warren distinguishes himself by trying to understand all the motives of the principal players in this sad, sanguinary drama….There are several simultaneous stories going on, and the author handles them all deftly.” —Kirkus Reviews

“An engaging history of the long struggle between the Puritan oligarchy and New England's most important Indian tribe, in which Roger Williams, America’s first advocate of religious freedom, played a vital role. Williams established Rhode Island as a refuge from Puritan domination, and a place where Indian and English settlers could live side by side, in peace. If you want to know about the origins of religious diversity and cultural pluralism in America, read this compelling book.” —Chester Gillis, Professor of Theology, Georgetown University

“A noted military historian trains his critical sights on Puritan New England, while putting up a staunch defense of Roger Williams, Rhode Island, and the Narragansett Indians. In this compelling story, James Warren portrays Williams as a man of peace in violent times, an intellectual whose ideas were often strikingly modern. Now recognized as a champion of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, Williams also earns Warren’s praise for his pioneering ethnographic research, his fair treatment of Native Americans, and his deft maneuvering to assure the survival of a tiny but tolerant colony.” —Professor Patrick M. Malone, Brown University, author of The Skulking Way of War

“In God, War, and Providence, James Warren accomplishes many tasks: he adds to the far too brief historiography of the small, radical colony that helped to shape the philosophical underpinnings of this nation; he renders comprehensible the complex relationships of 17th century religious dissenters and Native Americans; and he exposes his readers to the challenges of researching the Colonial Era—a scant and untrustworthy written record and even fewer records that capture the Native American perspective. And all the while he does this is an engaging and enjoyable narrative that is a pleasure to read.” — C. Morgan Grefe, PhD, Executive Director, Rhode Island Historical Society

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