J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Eager to Enlist, Yet Easily Overlooked: Eastern Massachusetts Indians in Combat in 1775

Today I’m pleased to share an essay from guest blogger David K. Thomas, a student at Colby College in Maine.

Isaac Comecho. Thomas Cognehew. Alexander Quapish. Joseph Paugenit. Fortune Burnee, Jr. These are not household names. But they are among the many American Indians from eastern Massachusetts who rushed to enlist when hostilities commenced in 1775. Each saw action in the Greater Boston area alongside his white and black neighbors.

The exemplary service of Stockbridge Indians from western Massachusetts and a lack of accessible documentation makes it easy to overlook these eastern Massachusetts Indians’ contributions.

Several dozen Indians from eastern Massachusetts were in action in 1775—while Indians were officially exempt from service. In fact, two hundred Indians from eastern Massachusetts—more than a third of all Indian males—eventually saw combat during the Revolutionary war in nearly all of the conflict’s major campaigns.

These included Mashpees and other Wampanoag Indians from dwindling reservations at Herring Pond, Plymouth, Dartmouth, and elsewhere. Aquinnah Wampanoags from Martha’s Vineyard also served. Nipmucs and Massachusett Indians such as the Naticks and the Ponkapoags—the remnants of Christian “Praying Town” communities—also enlisted. The tribal affiliations of other Indians remain unknown.

Military service provided a respite from a life spent wandering in search of farm work, whaling, or toiling as servants. Indian soldiers hoped that their service would lead to better times and improved treatment. Perhaps this explains why Eastern Massachusetts Indians fought so bravely in the opening battles of America’s war of independence.

Indian soldiers from Massachusetts hastened to enlist when the first Revolutionary shots were fired in 1775. Isaac Comecho, a Natick Indian, was present on the Battle Road between Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Thomas Cognehew, a Mashpee Indian from Sandwich, also “marched on the alarm of April 19, 1775.” A struggling farmer, the Nipmuc Fortune Burnee, Jr., of Grafton, officially enlisted on April 26, 1775, a week after the Battles of Lexington and Concord (see Burnee’s name on a pay petition here).

Some Indians, like Henries Vomhavi (profiled on Boston 1775 in 2009) participated in raids on British posts. Less than two months later, sixteen Indians fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Five were from Massachusetts. These men included Natick Indians Alexander Quapish and Joseph Paugenit. Quapish served in Cambridge in 1775, but sickened and died early the next year.

Paugenit was the son of a wounded French and Indian War veteran. His surname is a shortened form of an Indian word for “codfish.” He later saw action at the Battles of Harlem Heights in 1776 and Saratoga in 1777. He died in a military hospital in Albany before the end of 1777, at just 23 years old. An exact death toll for Indian patriots remains unclear, but these deaths strained already struggling Indian communities.

Indians in the army camp at Cambridge in 1775 no doubt met Stockbridge Indians, Connecticut Indians, maybe even Indians visiting from Maine. They may have even been detached to pick off of British sentries and to join an Indian-led attack on British barges sounding the mouth of the Charles River.

In the short term, there were clear financial incentives to join the American cause in the starting phases of the Revolutionary War. Some Indians, like the debt-ridden Jonas Obscow, who had buried three sick children in the years prior to 1775 (as he and his wife wrote in a 27 May 1772 petition to the province), were all but forced to join the Continental Army out of economic necessity.

From the start of the Revolution, all enlisted Massachusetts Patriots of color found generous enlistment bounties and pay equal to that of white soldiers. Moreover, Indians received either a “bounty coat” or the equivalent in cash from the Continental Army. For instance, Wampanoags Samuel James and Robert Pegin, both of Bridgewater, received their bounty coats in December 1775.

Despite the initial reluctance of the Continental Congress to employ Indian (and African American) soldiers, in December of 1775, Massachusetts officials called on Indian soldiers “in the case of real necessity.” New England Indians became more prevalent in the Continental Army.

The services of Eastern Massachusetts’ Indians in 1775 proved to be only the beginnings of many distinguished military careers. Yet despite their services and sacrifices, little improved for these Native Patriots or their Indian communities after the war.

Recent developments, particularly several ceremonies in Natick in the 2000s, have resulted in renewed attention to Massachusetts Indians’ contributions to the American cause and represent an increased interest in their service and contributions.

The major sources for information on Native soldiers in the first year of the Revolutionary War include George Quintal, Jr., Patriots of Color: “A Peculiar Beauty and Merit”; the Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War series; and the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Minority Military Service, Massachusetts: 1775-1783.

This article is a nice match to Thomas’s professor Daniel J. Tortora’s article at the Journal of the American Revolution today, tracking Native American soldiers from Massachusetts through the war. Thanks to both men for the contribution! 


Mark said...

Just days after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in Boston, the new American nation engaged in its first foreign treaty (Treaty of Watertown). It est'd a military alliance between American authorities and the Mi'kmaq First Nations of Nova Scotia in 1776.

Many of these First Nations people from NS fought for the Continental army, though one wonders if Americans today are even aware of this....

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve written about the Treaty of Watertown, but until a couple of years before those articles I’d never heard of it—and I grew up in a city that borders Watertown.