John Sassamon

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

John Sassamon, also known as Wussausmon (in Massachusett), was born circa 1620.[1] He became a Christian convert, a praying Indian who served as an interpreter to the colonists, as well as an aid to Metacomet, chief of the Wampanoag Confederacy.

In January 1675, Sassamon was assassinated. A mixed jury of colonists and Indian elders convicted and executed three Wampanoag men for his murder. These events helped spark the conflict known as King Philip's War, in which the English defeated the Wampanoag and ended armed resistance by the Native Americans of southeastern New England.

Early life and education[edit]

John Sassamon was a Wampanoag who lost his family and many villagers during the smallpox epidemic of 1633. Historians believe that he was then raised in the home of Richard Callicot, where he may have been indentured.[2] By his early teen years, he had been introduced to Christianity and learned to speak English. He is believed to have met and been mentored by the Christian missionary John Eliot during this period, and may have known and worked with him for as long as 40 years. Eliot mentioned the death of Sassamon in his diary.[3]

By the Pequot War in 1637, a joint effort by colonists and Native American allies to suppress the Pequot in present-day Connecticut, Sassamon was skilled enough to serve as an interpreter for the colonists. He fought with them alongside Richard Callicot in the service of Captain John Underhill.[4] Following this war, Sassamon began to teach Eliot the Indian language in exchange for learning English and the Christian way of life.[5] In 1651, John Eliot established Natick as the first praying town. Praying towns were reserved for Native Americans who had converted to Christianity and were willing to live according to English custom in permanent agricultural settlements. Eliot recruited Sassamon as one of two schoolmasters to teach both English and Christianity to the residents.[6]

Because of Sassamon's intelligence and ability to speak English, Eliot arranged for Sassamon to take classes at Harvard College in 1653. This was two years before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, in partnership with Harvard, founded a special "Indian College" there. Sassamon studied at Harvard for a year.[7] He may have studied alongside young Puritan men such as Increase Mather, Samuel Bradstreet, and John Eliot, Jr.[8]

Middle Years[edit]

Sassamon began to drift away from Puritan society around 1656 and entered Indian life for the first time since he was a child.[9] He served as a translator, scribe, negotiator, and secretary for three succeeding Wampanoag chief sachems: Massasoit, Wamsutta, and Metacomet.[10] Sassamon became especially influential to Metacomet, also known as King Philip, who he served for over a decade.[11] Metacomet did not know any English, so Sassamon was a valuable tool for maintaining his relations with the English.[12] John Eliot and other colonial leaders hoped that Sassamon could eventually convert Metacomet to Christianity but this did not happen.[13] Around 1669, Sassamon returned to Puritan society.[14] He did not sever ties with the Indians but it is not clear why he left. In 1671, he became a minister in the Nemasket praying town.[15]

Death[edit]

In January 1675, Sassamon warned Josiah Winslow, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, about an impending Indian attack being planned by Metacomet. The Puritans discounted his warning.[16] Soon afterward, Sassamon was reported missing. On January 29, 1675, his body was discovered in Assawompset Pond.[17] At first, the Puritans thought that he had drowned by accident while fishing. However, further examination suggested that he was murdered because his neck broken, most likely from a violent twisting.[18] Further evidence came from the Christian convert Patuckson who testified to have seen three of Metacomet's men kill Sassamon and put him in the icy pond.[19][20][21]

In June 1675, the English colonists charged and tried three Wampanoag Indians for the murder of Sassamon: Tobias, Wampapaquan, and Mattashunnamo. This trial was the first in Plymouth to include a mixed jury. The jury consisted of twelve English colonists and six Indian elders. The jury found the three men guilty of murdering Sassamon, and they were sentenced to death and executed.[22]

Historians have differed in reasons for why the Wampanoags would have murdered Sassamon. Possible reasons include revenge for his having told the colonists about war plans or disapproval of his conversion and efforts to evangelize to other natives.[23] Behind the varying explanations, as the historian Jill Lepore writes, is Sassamon's position as "cultural mediator," a man who was considered "neither English nor Indian, but negotiated with both peoples."[24]

Beginnings of war[edit]

Following the trial, tensions between both sides increased as they were becoming increasingly distrustful and frustrated with one another. The Puritans became more concerned about Metacomet's aggression and military strategies. The Wampanoags, who maintained the innocence of their three men,[25] were outraged that the Puritans had executed them. Metacomet did not trust the English system of justice as it concerned the Indians.[26]

Even before the verdict was ruled, both the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Metacomet's tribe were mobilizing their troops for war.[27] Fighting broke out later in June when the Wampanoags began attacking colonists in the Plymouth town of Swansea.[28]

Significance[edit]

As a Wampanoag who could both speak and write English, Sassamon had a unique role in 17th-century New England society. He had close relations with both Puritans and Indians and was considered elite in both societies. He was powerful in each settlement where his positions as teacher and secretary were highly valued.

To the Puritans, Sassamon had embodied the success of their conversion efforts and assimilation of Indians into English society. The Wampanoags relied on him as a crucial link between themselves and the Puritans. Ultimately, he came to embody the fundamental discord between the Wampanoags and the Puritans. His position outside each society represented the underlying irreconcilable differences and distrust between the two.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kawashima, Yasuhide. Igniting King Philip's War: The John Sassamon Murder Trial. (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 76.
  2. ^ Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. 1st ed. (New York: Knopf, 1998), 22.
  3. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 76.
  4. ^ Drake, James D. King Philip's War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676. (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 68.
  5. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 77.
  6. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 78.
  7. ^ Lepore, The Name of War, 22.
  8. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 78.
  9. ^ Lepore, The Name of War, 33-34.
  10. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 79.
  11. ^ Salisbury, Neal. "Introduction: A World Upended." In The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, 21. (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1997), 21.
  12. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 79.
  13. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 80.
  14. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 161.
  15. ^ Drake, King Philip's War, 68.
  16. ^ Leach, Douglas Edward. Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip's War. (New York: Norton, 1966), 31.
  17. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 79.
  18. ^ Leach, Flintlock and Tomahawk, 31.
  19. ^ Salisbury, "Introduction: A World Upended", 21.
  20. ^ Drake, King Philip's War, 68.
  21. ^ Leach, Flintlock and Tomahawk, 32.
  22. ^ Salisbury, "Introduction: A World Upended", 21.
  23. ^ Kawashima, Igniting King Philip's War, 1-2.
  24. ^ Lepore, Jill. "Dead Men Tell No Tales: John Sassamon and the Fatal Consequences of Literacy." American Quarterly Volume 46 Number 4 (1994): 479-512.
  25. ^ Melvoin, Richard L. New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield. (New York: Norton, 1989), 97.
  26. ^ Salisbury, "Introduction: A World Upended", 21.
  27. ^ Melvoin, New England Outpost, 97.
  28. ^ Salisbury, "Introduction: A World Upended", 21.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Drake, James D. King Philip's War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
  • Kawashima, Yasuhide. Igniting King Philip's War: The John Sassamon Murder Trial. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2001.
  • Leach, Douglas Edward. Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip's War. The Norton Library. New York: Norton, 1966.
  • Lepore, Jill. "Dead Men Tell No Tales: John Sassamon and the Fatal Consequences of Literacy." American Quarterly Volume 46 Number 4 (1994): 479-512.
  • Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1998.
  • Melvoin, Richard L. New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield. New York: Norton, 1989.
  • Salisbury, Neal. "Introduction: A World Upended." In The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, 21. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1997.