This Week in New England Native Documentary History

During one hot summer at the end of the seventeenth century, the weather in Westerly, Rhode Island became unbearable and caused a drought.  This prompted a group of Narragansetts living nearby to turn to their cultural practices for a remedy by summoning a powwow or spiritual leader to hold a series of ritual ceremonies. 

The brief story, written down by Ezra Stiles as he learned it from Dr. Joshua Babcock (1707-1783), recounts a young John Babcock, Jr. (1669-1746) scolding his father’s Indians for attending the services and missing work.  But he is eventually put in his place by a Native shaman and a particularly heavy rainstorm.   

Of particular interest is John Babcock, Sr.’s Indian workers, who were most likely captives from King Philip’s War and put into bondage, for the elder Babcock’s probate inventory, taken June 4, 1685, lists a number of slaves: one Negro boy valued at 20 pounds, and two Indian men and Indian girls, valued at 30 pounds.

John Babcock, Jr.’s confrontation with the Narragansett powwow is explored in more detail in chapter three, of John Wood Sweet’s Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) and in Linford Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2012).  For a discussion of the role of Native powwows, see R. Todd Romero’s Making War and Minting Christians: Masculinity, Religion and Colonialism in Early New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).  For a Native perspective, be sure to read the late Vine Deloria, Jr.’s The World We Used to Live In: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men (Fulcrum Publishers, 2006).

Stiles’ notes with transcription can be viewed here.  The document is from the Ezra Stiles Collection at Yale’s Beinecke Manuscript and Rare Book Library.  Reference for Dr. Joshua Babcock’s portrait.

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