New Feature: Perspectives

Editor’s Note:  One of the purposes of Op-Ed is to stimulate thoughts and conversations about Native New England through the varying materials within the New England Indian Papers Series electronic archives.   Since the blog’s inception, project editors have written the regularly posted short essays and announcements.  This semester, we’ll be getting some help from our student intern, Kyle Armstrong.  Kyle will be writing a column, which you’ll see about every other week.  We’re calling the feature Perspectives, quite simply because it offers up yet another point of view.   Perhaps in the near future, we’ll open it up to other invited commentators as well.

Joseph Fish and the Stonington School House Project

As I began to contemplate my first topic for the Yale Indian Papers Project, I realized just how daunting was the task at hand. Initially believed to be an advantage, the “creative freedom” awarded to me by the editors at YIPP at times seemed quite the opposite. My first real assignment as an intern with the project involved researching a topic that interested me and writing about it. Sounds easy right? Sifting through the multitude of documents in search of a writing prompt proved to be much more difficult than I initially anticipated. The YIPP database is filled with interesting stories. Stories that a lover of history like myself could be lost within for days. Anyone who is passionate about history will confirm that you must truly enjoy a good story. Luckily for me, I stumbled upon the story of Joseph Fish. In consideration of my dream to one day teach a high school history class, I felt it fitting to write about a simple minister from Stonington, Connecticut whose community activism involved the organization of an Indian School for the Eastern Pequot Tribe.

Joseph Fish was born January 28, 1705 to a traditional Puritan family. After completing his studies for the ministry at Harvard College, he accepted a position as pastor of the Stonington (now North Stonington) Congregational Church, which he held up to his death on May 26, 1781.   Like many Congregationalists, he strongly believed in patience, scripture, and work ethic. He preached these beliefs to his parishioners as well as to the neighboring Eastern Pequot and Narragansett communities.  Reverend Fish passionately worked towards building a school for the Eastern Pequot so their children could learn to read and write, as well as provide an outlet for his spiritual teachings. In 1757, Fish wrote a letter to the Commissioner for Indian Affairs in an attempt to persuade him to back such a venture. Fish and the surrounding community had gathered books, and had begun the search for an appropriate meeting place.

This school became a very important part of Fish’s life work. He continuously sought the help of the English community in North Stonington for financial support, as well as with the Indians themselves.  Eastern Pequot member Mary Nedson, in whose house the school sessions had formerly been held, and her mother Patience contributed money for the construction of the new school house, while Abner Metupps and Jonathan Newkee, Jr. pledged their time and labor.

In a memo regarding the care of the school in 1772, Fish wrote of the many difficulties he faced in keeping the school operational. In many cases he had to act as temporary schoolmaster while he searched for someone, most often a Native teacher, to fill the position. Fish took it upon himself to find proper lodging, acquire books and paper, assess the students to measure lesson retention, and gathering blankets and other warm articles of clothing so the students would be comfortable in the winter. Within this memo, Fish described how he at times used his personal finances to fund the school, “Procuring Paper & Books, in the Intervals of a Supply from the Commissioners, Which I pay of my own money, and distributing the Books Among them, which is hard to do without giving Offense.”

Reverend Fish devoted his life to his church, his school, and working to help the local tribes. However, he had his imperfections. As a devout “Old Light” Christian he had the typical Euro-ethnocentrism common for people of the time. He viewed the Indian’s traditions and practices as backwards and uncivilized. In some instances he referred to their behavior as “evil” and “sinful.” Unfortunately this kind of inability to accept a different belief system is what furthers the cultural divide and inevitably leads to conflict. Even though his intentions were just, the reverend’s strict devotion to the teachings found in scripture had negative consequences. According to William and Cheryl Simmons in Old Light on Separate Ways: The Narragansett Diary of Joseph Fish, 1765-1776 (1983), Fish’s rigid beliefs and inability to relate to the very people he devoted his life to helping is what caused so many Indians in the area to embrace the alternative New Light religion during the Great Awakening. Regardless of this outcome, it is clear the devotion Fish had for both his community and the surrounding tribes of North Stonington. His life work focused around what he believed to be the path to salvation, and he spent countless hours and his own money working towards sharing that path with others.   

Fish’s correspondence and journals among the Eastern Pequot, housed at the Connecticut Historical Society, are a part of the New England Indian Papers Series and can be viewed through this link.  A more thorough biography of Reverend Fish including a catalogue of diary entries regarding his work with the Narragansett Tribes can be found in Old Light on Separate Ways written by William S. Simmons and Cheryl L. Simmons.

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