More than a century after the Puritans converted praying Indians and organized them into towns, they fought on the American side during the Revolutionary War.
The Puritans considered the native tribes idolatrous savages who needed enlightenment and redemption. Some Puritans thought the Indians belonged to the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
The Massachusetts Bay charter declared part of the Puritan mission to convert the native people. In their own words, they came to North America,
To winn and incite the natives of the country to the knowledge and Obedience of the onlie true God and Saviour of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth.
And the first seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony featured a Native American saying, “Come over and help us.”
On October 28, 1646, in Nonantum (now Newton), Puritan missionary John Eliot preached his first sermon to the Massachusett tribe. He spoke in their own language. Then he eventually translated the Bible into the Massachusett language and had it printed — the first Bible published in America.
Eliot and other missionaries then continued to convert native people.
The Puritans set the praying Indians apart from their own towns and from disagreeable neighboring tribes. Natives who converted became farmers, established homesteads, built frame houses, lost their tribal identities and intermarried with blacks and whites.
Praying towns in Massachusetts included Gay Head and Christiantown on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. On the mainland, they included Nonantum, Natick, Mashpee, Grafton, Dartmouth and Herring Pond in Plymouth. In Connecticut, Nipmuc praying towns included Maanexit, probably today’s Fabyan. They also included Quinnatisset, six miles south of Maanexit, and Wagaquasset in Woodstock.
That seems like a lot of praying towns. But historian Gary Nash argued after 10 years of effort, only about a thousand natives settled in four praying towns. Fewer than 100 declared their conversion to Puritan congregationalism, wrote Nash.
Why would the indigenous people convert to the Puritan religion? The short answer: they hoped to avoid war and to protect their territory. Typically, the weaker and more demoralized tribes responded to the missionaries. The Mashpee Indians, for example, pretty much stayed out of King Philip’s War and kept their land on Cape Cod.
During the American Revolution, as many as 100 praying Indians enlisted in the Continental Army. They integrated with other units. Some Indian mariners belonged to John Glover’s Marblehead storied regiment, and some belonged to the 1st Rhode Island regiment.
The 1st Rhode Island earned a reputation as the Black Regiment because it had many African-American soldiers. But it also included Native Americans. They fought well at the Battle of Rhode Island, which Lafayette called “the best fought action of the war.”
But Glover’s Regiment deserves special mention. Historian Patrick O’Donnell explains why in his new book, The Indispensables.
…the American Revolution would have met an early, dramatic demise had it not been for the SEAL-like operations and extraordinary battlefield achievements of this diverse, unsung group of men and their commander…
Glover’s elite unit rescued the Continental Army from destruction after the Battle of Long Island in a Dunkirk-like evacuation. The regiment also saved the patriot cause when it ferried 2,400 men, their horses and artillery across the Delaware River in a blinding snowstorm.
Praying Indians Who Served
Historian George Quintal, Jr., compiled their service histories in his book Patriots of Color: ‘A Peculiar Beauty and Merit.’
- James Anthony, born in Natick, served for eight months in 1775 under Col. Jonathan Ward. He then re-enlisted from 1777 to 1780 in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. He also fought at Saratoga and camped at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777. Anthony got his discharge on March 14, 1780.
- Alexander Quapish, born around 1741 in Yarmouth, Mass., enlisted in Dedham in 1775. He belonged to Col. Loammi Baldwin’s main guard. But he got sick in March 1776 and died in Needham. A man named Michael Bacon took care of him in his last days and buried him. Bacon was likely the father of a 10-year-old drummer boy Quapish befriended.
- Ceasar Ferrit had West Indian, French, Dutch, and Natick Indian ancestry. He was born around 1720, raised in Boston by an English family and moved to the praying town of Natick in 1751. Ferrit volunteered as a minutemen at Lexington and Concord with his son John. He also helped ambush British soldiers in Lexington. Ferrit served in militias and regiments from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. He was about 61 when discharged in 1781.
Today, descendants of the praying Indians from Natick have organized as the Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag.
The State Seal
The current state seal features an arm holding a sword poised above a Native American. The motto, translated from Latin, reads, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
Many view the seal as offensive, and in 2021 Gov. Charlie Baker ordered a commission to recommend changes. Then on May 17, 2022, the commission voted unanimously to change the seal.
This story was updated in 2023.
Images: First seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony By Viiticus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=112564338