February 1675, the body of John Sassamon was found under the ice at Assawompset Pond in what is now southeastern Massachusetts. Born a Wampanoag Indian early in the century, Sassamon had been orphaned at a young age and raised by English immigrants as a Christian. Eloquent and literate in both the Massachusett language and English, Sassamon served for several decades as a mediator between Algonquian Indians and the English colonists who lived on the North Atlantic coast. He had worked closely with John Eliot, an English missionary who translated Christian Scriptures into Massachusett, and he studied briefly at Harvard College, a new school founded to train Protestant ministers to preach the gospel in a world the colonists called New England. Sassamon had also advised the powerful Wampanoag leader Metacom, whom the English dubbed King Philip.
Relations between Metacom and the English colony of Plymouth deteriorated in the early 1670s, and in January 1675, Sassamon informed the Plymouth authorities that King Philip was planning to attack them. Josiah Winslow, Plymouth’s governor, dismissed the report as the unreliable testimony of an Indian. A week later Sassamon disappeared, and soon thereafter came the discovery of his body. In due course, a witness stepped forward to testify that three of Metacom’s advisers were responsible for the killing. After a jury of Englishmen and Christian Indians convicted the men of murder, a Plymouth court ordered their execution.
A protracted and bloody war followed, by some measures the deadliest in American history.
The career of the man at the center of this drama epitomized how intertwined the lives of European settlers and Native Americans had become over the course of the seventeenth century. European colonization on the North American mainland entered a new phase in the early 1600s. By 1614, English, Dutch, French, and Spanish colonizers had secured settlements on North America’s Atlantic coast, and in 1638 Sweden established a fur-trading colony in the lower Delaware Valley. These colonies encountered many of the same problems that had plagued the failed ventures of the previous century, but by midcentury their settlements were still standing, and Europeans were enjoying flourishing trade with indigenous peoples. Although the new colonies remained small outposts on the periphery of a region dominated by Indian nations, they had a profound impact on the lands that would become the United States. In addition to the devastating diseases that followed in the colonists’ wake, Europeans introduced deadly weapons, ecologically disruptive animals, and unfamiliar ways of using and thinking about land. By the second half of the seventeenth century, European colonization was changing the face of the continent.
In this detail from a larger nineteenth-century painting, George Catlin re-created a meeting in 1682 between the French explorer La Salle and the chief of the Taensa Indians in what today is northeastern Louisiana.
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The new colonies varied markedly. French, Dutch, and Swedish settlements were organized around fur trading, whereas English settlements focused on farming. In the Chesapeake Bay region, English colonists grew tobacco on large and relatively isolated plantations, whereas those who lived in New England worked smaller farms and clustered in towns. In Florida and in the Southwest, the Spanish established a mission system to convert Indians and control their labor, whereas English Protestants sought other strategies for spreading the gospel. Religious differences and national rivalries shaped colonial enterprises during this period.
Geographical differences along the Atlantic coast influenced the histories of the new European colonies, but economic and demographic developments mattered as well. Because of social conditions in England, the new English colonies attracted more immigrants than the others. English travelers to the New World included significant numbers of free settlers of both sexes, who sought not to extract precious resources but to build new lives and new communities on American soil. Some English colonists continued to dream of living off the labor of Native Americans, but increasingly they turned to other sources and systems. Eventually, the very different European colonies established in Virginia, New England, New Netherland, New France, and New Mexico during the early seventeenth century would shape settlement patterns for many of the societies that would become the United States.
Despite their differences, all of these colonial experiments shared a tenuous, fragile quality, and by the 1670s, most were facing crises that threatened to extinguish them altogether. The devastating war that erupted in John Sassamon’s New England was just one of three major military conflicts in the continent’s largest European colonies between 1675 and 1680, ending a long period of tense coexistence that had allowed those colonies to take root.
What different colonial projects did Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands initiate in North America, and why?
In what crucial ways did the New England and Chesapeake colonies differ?
Why did tensions arise between colonists and Indians in the various lands Europeans settled in the first half of the seventeenth century?
How did the three major eruptions of violence in colonial North America between 1676 and 1680 differ from one another?
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