Part of the Enslavement & Resistance: New England 1620-1760 Series hosted by Partnership of Historic Bostons with support from Mass Humanities
From its very first years, Massachusetts was bound to slavery. How did it begin, who was enslaved, what were their lives like? Join award-winning historians and Tribal representatives for a revelation of our bitter past, in five eye-opening events.
Award-winning historian Margaret Newell reveals how New England slavery began with the Pequot War and the enslavement of Indigenous people
Wednesday, November 1 · 6 – 7:30pm EDT
Rabb Auditorium, Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street Boston, MA 02116
This important talk by award-winning historian Margaret Newell reveals the origins of New England slavery in the Pequot War – a violent conflict from the first years of the Massachusetts colony in which the colonists took the first step establishing slavery for both Indigenous and African peoples. Joshua Carter, executive director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, and Michael Thomas of the Museum’s Board will add their perspective as members of the Pequot Nation.
Note: If you can’t make it to the Boston Public Library, here is the link for live-streaming.
The Pequot War shaped the law and practice of slavery in New England in fundamental ways. English adventurers/explorers kidnapped and trafficked Native inhabitants of New England before 1630. But the practice moved into a new, much more intensive stage in the summer of 1637 with the outbreak of the Pequot War, the first major conflict between English and Indigenous peoples in the region.
Many scholars have explored the causes and consequences of the Pequot War but, as documented in Margaret Newell’s groundbreaking book, Brethren by Nature, enslavement of Indians quickly became a key goal of that war – one reflected in military orders, troop movements, the treatment of civilian non-combatants, and in the treaty that ended the conflict.
This makes the Pequot War a crucial event in the history of New England slavery, affecting Indigenous peoples across the region and shaping African slavery. Indeed, and contrary to common belief, Indigenous enslavement became ubiquitous.
Colonial governments distributed Pequot captives to ministers, soldiers, and magistrates. The governor’s “Mansion House” and nearby Cole’s Tavern in Boston housed Pequot slaves, as did many harbor islands. Boston and Salem authorities punished Native runaways, built a slave pen, and used Pequot men and boys as a commodity to enter the lucrative Caribbean trade. Massachusetts Bay’s 1641 legal code, drafted in the wake of the war, included a law of slavery and legalized enslavement of captives.
Individual colonies adopted “slave codes before slavery” that affected both free and enslaved Indians, creating a constant threat of enslavement. The Pequot War demonstrated a destructive side of colonial settlers’ actions that many Native American groups would experience, one that included displacement, violence, family separation, and theft of labor and resources.
Joshua Carter, executive director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, and Michael Thomas, member of the board of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and former chair of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, will join Margaret and share their perspectives on the Pequot War and the consequences of slavery.
To purchase Brethren by Nature – which we can’t recommend highly enough – click here.
See also a few of Margaret Newell’s op-eds, podcasts and lectures:
“Our Hidden History: Roger Williams and Slavery’s Origins,” Providence Journal and Bulletin, August 29, 2020
“History Holds Lessons for Nation in Grip of Pandemic,” Columbus Dispatch, August 1, 2020
Episode 220: “New England Indians, Colonists and the Origins of Slavery,” Ben Franklin’s World podcast, January 8, 2019
Lectures in History: State Constitutions, C-SPAN, March 23, 2022
Margaret Newell is the distinguished arts and sciences professor and professor of history at Ohio State University. She is the author of Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists and the Origins of American Slavery (Cornell University Press, 2015; paperback 2016) and From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England (Cornell University Press, 1998; paperback 2015). She won numerous awards for Brethren by Nature, including the Peter Gomes Memorial Prize, Massachusetts Historical Society, and the James A. Rawley Prize for best book dealing with the history of race relations in the United States, Organization of American Historians. Brethren by Nature was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, an Andrew Mellon Fellowship at the Huntington Library and a fellowship at the John Nicholas Brown Center. She has also received awards for her articles.
She is currently working on three books, one provisionally entitled Undergrounds Before the Age of Rail: Escaping Slavery and Helping Slaves Escape in Colonial America, about which she’ll be giving a presentation for the Partnership of Historic Bostons in winter 2024.
This talk will be live-streamed and recorded, and posted on historicbostons.org and our YouTube channel.
The opinions expressed in this presentation are those of the presenter and not necessarily those of the Partnership of Historic Bostons.
Image: This portrait was long thought to be of Niantic leader Ninigret II, but recent scholarship identifies it as Robin Cassacinamon, an important Pequot leader. Native American Sachem, accession number 48.246, courtesy of RISD/public domain.