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, November 15, 2017

A Voice from Nantucket

For the last couple of days I’ve quoted newspaper accounts from October 1738 about a violent uprising of Wampanoag people on Nantucket that not only never happened but was, contrary to the first reports, never even planned.

In the winter 1996 issue of Historic Nantucket, later adapted in his book Away Off Shore, Nathaniel Philbrick discussed another apparent account of the same fear, preserved in the Nantucket Historical Association’s archives.

This story was set down in 1895 by Eliza Mitchell, then close to ninety years old. She recorded a story she remembered hearing as a child in the 1810s from another woman who had then been about the same age—thus putting the origin of the tale in the 1730s.

Philbrick described the older woman’s recollection this way:
As the girl and her older brothers and sisters changed into their night clothes and tightened their beds, there was a sound at the front door. It was their father. He was clearly agitated and yet was trying desperately to remain calm, announcing that mother “need not retire or undress the children.” When asked why, he simply said that “there was trouble brewing with the Indians.” But all of them, especially her brothers and sisters, demanded to know more. Reluctantly, her father explained: The day before, an Indian had come into town and “carefully, though very privately” told of a secret plot by the two tribes to attack the English settlement and take over the island. Even though the character of the Indian informant was somewhat suspect, the town officials were inclined to take the warning seriously. When you lived on an island that was a three-hour sail from the mainland (in ideal conditions), you were not about to dismiss even the wildest rumor.

Word went out to all the men that they would be divided into several companies: some would stay in town to protect the women and children in case the attack materialized; other groups would head out to the various Indian villages in an attempt to discover if, in fact, an uprising was in the works. In the meantime, it had been “thought best not to inform their families until the last minute.”

But now the truth was out, and according to the old woman, there were “many fears and some tears.” Borrowing a page from the frontier towns in the western half of the colonies, the Nantucketers decided to consolidate the women and children into a few, easily defended houses, and so “the families gathered their little ones close around them, club’d together, well as they could.” The old woman remembered laying her head upon her mother’s lap, and gradually falling to sleep, “as children will.”

It was time for the men to search the darkness for Indian war parties. All night they patrolled the treeless moors in the swirling mist, their eyes and ears straining for some indication of the Indian bands their imaginations inevitably placed behind every rise of land and within every hollow. But by daybreak they had found nothing. Exhausted, they returned to town and made their report.

The next day, the town’s sheriff and “fifty well-armed men” set out to determine, if possible, the “meaning of it all.” Instead of finding the Indians in the midst of a war dance, “they found all quiet.” It was harvest time, and the Indians were “merrily husking their corn.” When they learned about the white people’s fears, the natives were deeply disturbed and demanded to know who had told them this false story.

As it turned out, the informant had spent the last three days in a drunken stupor, having used the money the English had paid him to purchase rum. According to the old woman, the Indians were “so highly incensed [that] they came near tearing him apart.” Eventually it was decided that he would receive no less than thirty lashes (the limit allowed by colonial law) at the town’s whipping post.
Mitchell went on to describe the punishment, saying it was the last public whipping on the island.

This story fits the mold of what I call “grandmothers’ tales”—historic stories we hear as children and never doubt, even though the original storyteller might not have meant them to be taken literally. Some of our best legends get into print that way.

In this case, however, the story matches some important aspects of the earliest Boston News-Letter report of the conspiracy: a single Native man alerting the white settlers on Nantucket, prompting a brief but consuming fear “wholly contradicted” a short time later. According to Mitchell, the man initially hailed in Boston as “an honest Indian Fellow” ended up being whipped for lying.

In his Early American Studies article “Inventing an Indian Slave Conspiracy on Nantucket, 1738,” Justin Pope blames John Draper of the Boston News-Letter not only for printing an unfounded rumor but for largely creating it. According to that paper’s abstract, Draper chose to “invent a sensational account of an imminent Indian uprising” based on “conventions established over years of reporting slave unrest.”

The Nantucket tradition that Mitchell wrote down suggests that the island’s British people truly were afraid of a Native uprising around the start of October 1738, enough to gather their women and children and organize patrols. With those “conventions” about uprisings already established, local whites could have sensationalized their fears themselves. Draper might have accurately reported the news that mariners from Nantucket brought to Boston. Or newspaper reports and local gossip could have built on each other in a spiraling account.

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