Gender, Class and Society in Early 18th Century New England

The mid-18th century saw a developed and gradual change away from previous norms in terms of class, economic development, wealth, status and gender roles that appears to have often gone unnoticed.  As these changes took place, colonists in New England adapted in various methods to new cultural expectations and purposes in ways that reflect the shifting understanding of gender, religion and status.  Some accepted this change far more gracefully than others, and there appears to have been conflict not only along gender lines, but along religious lines and understandings as well.

The article from Chamberlain highlighted the diminishing influence of Puritan religious ideologies as social distinctions between genders became more and more pronounced.  In the early days of the New England colonies, there was really little difference between public and private affairs, so when Jonathan Edwards sought to prosecute young men for sexually charged speech, it is natural that he would expect little resistance.[1]  What he found, however, was a growing disparity throughout New England between men and women, and what was considered socially acceptable for each.[2]

Changing economic relationships also highlighted the need of the clergy to try and curtail the accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake, and to try and channel that money into charitable means.[3]  Doing so, however successful, served to dehumanize those less fortunate by focusing on the blessings and increase of charity for the sake of public piety, rather than the needs of those who were in desperate for help in a harsh and often unforgiving climate.[4]  For the ministers of the flock, however, tying economic prosperity with piety served to further the charitable leanings of society and religion, but also increased the clergy’s influence and rebounding from a gradual waning trend.[5]

Most interestingly to me, however was the view of gender and social roles studied by Kathleen Bradon in her article about Native American Women converting and becoming a part of Christianity in New England.  Though gender roles were not as rigidly defined among many Native American communities as they were thought to be in the Christian communities of New England, there did seem to be distinct differences between the roles of women and men among Native Americans.[6]  It is arguable, however that the supposed rigid gender roles in Puritan society were not quite as well-defined and dogmatic as stereotypical history would have us believe.[7]

Despite all of these shifting trends in New England society, it is clear that there was still a defined social norm for gender as well as class, and religion still had a steady foothold throughout society as the New England colonies pushed relentlessly on towards the inevitable revolution.

[1] Ava Chamberlain, “Bad Books and Bad Boys: The Transformation of Gender in Eighteenth Century Northampton, Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 75, no. 2 (2002): 179-203.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christine Leigh Heyrman, “The Fashion Among More Superior People: Charity and Social Change in Provincial New England, 1700-1740,” American Quarterly 34, no. 2 (1982): 107-124.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kathleen Brandon, “Gender as a Social Category in Native Southern New England,” Ethnohistory 43, NO. 4 (1996): 573-592.

[7] James E. McWilliams, “Butter, Milk, and a ‘Spare Ribb’: Women’s Work and the Transatlantic Economic Transition in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 82, no. 1 (2009):5-24.

Advertisements

The Institution of Slavery in the New England Colonies

Over the past 5 weeks, I have had a lot of research on the practice and institution of slavery in Colonial New England, since that is what my final paper will be about, so I’m incredibly happy that this week’s module coincides with the writing of the rough draft.

Slavery in New England in the colonial period, although technically considered chattel slavery as was practiced both in the south and in the West Indies, was a different type of slavery than may be expected when studying the subject. It is inarguable that slavery in the colonies was in much smaller numbers than that which was practiced elsewhere, and it is also impossible to argue that the slavery that existed in the New England Colonies was not fundamentally tied to the trade agreements between the colonists and the Indies.[1] The passing back and forth of labor in the form of slaves (both African and Native American) to the Indies in exchange for the selling of sugar, tobacco and other cash crops enabled large-scale economic growth in the New England colonies, further increasing the demand for labor which, in turn, required more slaves.[2]

It is hard to argue, however, that slavery was ever “embraced” by the colonists in New England. While true that it was an accepted and justified way of life and was normalized long before revolutionary sentiments began, it was never as prolific as it was in the southern colonies, and very early on it had its critics.[3]  The interesting part about slavery in religious terms was that it was both justified and condemned by the Bible and shared religious beliefs.[4]

By the mid-18th century, racial biases and understandings in the New World were just beginning to be formed.[5]   While some like Cotton Mather argued that physical differences did matter to God and therefore should not necessarily matter to humankind, others took a very different position, justifying both superiority and inferiority on racial lines.[6]

In hindsight, it’s all too easy for those of us in the 21st century to look back on the institution of slavery and its history in our country with disdain and judgement, but to do so minimizes the variations and arguments against it that began to stoke the fires of abolition in New England which would eventually spread and consume the rest of a fledgling nation.

[1] Winthrop D Jordan, “The Influence of the West Indies on the Origins of New England Slavery,” The William and Mary Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1961):243-250.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert E Desrochers Jr., “Slave-for-Sale Advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781,” The William and Mary Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2002):623-664.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Margot Minardi, “The Boston Inoculation Controversy of 1721-1722: An Incident in the History of Race,” The William and Mary Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2004):47-76.

[6] Ibid.

Environmental Changes in Colonial New England

It is clear from the reading of Changes in the Land that the two myths proposed in this weeks’ prompt need to be clearly disregarded.  Neither were Native Americans early environmentalists, nor did the first European settlers on the shores of the New England coast encounter a “virgin land” virtually untouched by human hands.  Native Americans had long used the land to their purposes – the myth of the virgin land only occurred because European settlers did not recognize Native American use of the land as either owning or utilizing it.[1]

When combining the lessons learned in previous modules with the ecological impact studied in this one, similar themes are discovered.  The cultural differences between the Native American inhabitants of the European’s new world were simply too vast for either side to gain ground in attempting to understand the other.  Two conflicting views of property, land and ownership made it impossible for either side to come to terms with an opposing culture in any real, meaningful way.[2]  Regardless of what cultural differences existed (and they were almost too numerous to count) it is impossible that the inhabitants from either cultural tradition could live in and work the land without fundamental changing it, making ecosystems and environments far different than they originally were prior to human contact.[3]

Native Americans were also not united in a single, culture-wide way of life.[4]  Southern New England Native Americans did cultivate crops, but even their agriculture was mobile which simply could not be understood by their European neighbors.[5]  Native Americans that lived further north, however, relied on a purely hunter/gatherer society, and did not cultivate the land at all.[6]  The fact that the Native Americans did not create permanent settlements or claim personal property, in fact, was the lynchpin that became the undercurrent in European rights to the land and everything on it.[7]  Due to the growing of the European population and the lower available of both land and resources for the Native Americans, the remaining indigenous population had to resort to participating in the fur trade, further depleting the land’s natural resources and causing permanent changes to the landscape and Biosystems of the North East.[8]

[1] William Cronon, Changes in the Land, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983): 164.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 55.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Conflict, Violence and Bloodshed Between Cultures

Although a peace spanning 50 years was able to be achieved between the colonists at the Plymouth settlement and their Native American neighbors, peace did not last. In many areas of Colonial New England, peace failed before it began.  This can be attributed to many factors, none the least of which was a very deep difference in cultural understanding between the two very different peoples.  Native American customs and rituals were foreign to the settlers, and in many cases, little (if anything) was done to make the effort to attempt to understand native cultures.

By example, when the Native Americans delivered heads or other body parts to the colonists, they did it as a symbol of mutual trust and friendship, seeing themselves as equals and pledging assistance to each other.[1]  The colonists, on the other hand, saw it as a sign of submission to English/colonial rule, placing the Native Americans beneath the European settlers.[2]

A marked difference between the colonists and their native neighbors lay in their methodology in conflict itself. For Native American cultures, massacres were unnecessary and wasteful, continuing the cycle of violence into future generations.[3]  The Europeans, however, saw it as a necessary and even justifiable evil in order to further weaken their enemy in not only numbers but in morale and willingness to fight as well.[4]  Colonial leaders like Commander Gardner made it plain that the European settlers set down an “us or them” attitude towards the Native Americans in terms of hostilities amongst Native Americans, giving potential allies and enemies alike the option to either join with the colonists against any aggressive Native American action or to face the consequences of being hostile themselves, even if they did not fight against the English.[5]

In addition to all of that, although colonists were at times desperate to enter into peace agreements with the Native Americans – especially in light of potential war with France and its allied native populations – the colonists were not keen on keeping to their agreements.[6]  Native Americans did not view land, resources or hunting grounds the same way that Europeans did, and despite numerous agreements with various tribes, settlements kept expanding and pushing onto lands that the Native Americans viewed as their traditional/historical territory, though they did not have a concept of “ownership” as the West would view it today.[7]  Despite numerous attempts to bring their grievances before colonial governments, resolution was not forthcoming, making conflict, violence and bloodshed an unavoidable consequence of these cultures colliding.

[1]  Andrew Lipman, “’A Meanes to Knitt Them Togeather’: the Exchange of Body Parts in the Pequot War,” The William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2008): 3-28.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jenny Hale Pulsipher “’Dark Cloud Rising from the East’: Indian Sovereignty and the Coming of King William’s War in New England,” The New England Quarterly, Inc. 80, no. 4 (2007): 588-613.

[7] Ibid.

Settlers, Native Americans and Alliances

Unlike the later history of conflict, animosity and violence between North America’s immigrant settlers and their Native American natives, the colonists at Plymouth managed to carve out a relatively peaceful prolonged period of piece with several of the neighboring native tribes – at least compared to some of the other settlements at the time.

Within months of the Plymouth colony’s settlement on the shores of the brave new world, the leadership of the settlement had forged a peace and trade agreement with Massasiot, the leader of the local Wampanoag people.[1]  The negotiated peace dictated that neither the Wampanoag people nor the settlers would cause harm to each other, that any violations of the agreement would be dealt with by the offender being turned over to the side that was harmed, that they would not steal tools or resources from each other, and that each group would assist each other in the event of any military conflict.[2]  While both sides had their strengths and their weaknesses at the time this agreement was reached, both sides also benefited from the peace terms.  The settlers were incredibly few in number, especially after their first winter in the new world.  The Wampanoag people were decimated by disease in 1617, and their numbers were incredibly low compared to some of the other neighboring tribes.[3]  Signed in 1621, the peace treaty between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag lasted for 50 years until King Philips’ war – perpetrated by the son of Massasoit, Metacom, otherwise known as King Philip.[4]

Not all native/settler relations were positive, however, and it was clear that continued conflict between the settlers and other tribes like the Narragansets and ultimately King Philip’s war led to a shift in the delicate balance of the colonist/native relationship.[5]  Despite the assertion of equality under the law of the land, Native Americans were often treated more leniently (legally speaking) than their settler counterparts, and while this may initially seem like a nod to a different culture and belief system, it underlines the belief – subconsciously held or not – that the Native people of the new world were beneath the English settlers, and that they couldn’t possibly be expected to live up to the same standards due to being “savages” and not cultured, refined Europeans.[6]  This can be argued against, however, by pointing out that more lenient sentences helped maintain the tenuous and often strained relationship between the settlers and the Native Americans, but that argument seems to lose standing when considering the fate of a large majority of the native population by 1676.[7]  By the time King Philip’s war was over, there was a marked difference in the way that Native Americans were seen and treated, as evidenced by the fact that the Nipmucks, Wampanoags and Narragansetts were almost completely subjugated by the European settlers, and a large number of Native Americans were already enslaved, with many more in the process of becoming so.[8]  Thus began the terrible history of relations between immigrant Americans and the actual NATIVE Americans that continued on long into the future.

[1] James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony (New York: Random House, 2000), 63-64.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, pg. 142

Cross-Cultural Exchange

It’s clear from the early readings of this module that a lot had changed in the landscape and structure of Native American communities prior to their first contact with European explorers or settlers reached North America.[1]  As contact between Europeans and Indians increased, however, the nature of their contact and relationship changed depending on the settler (even potentially the settler’s country of origin), the end desired result, the circumstances of the contact and even which Native American culture they encountered.[2]  Native Americans were a varied and diverse collection of people, social groups, trade arrangements and cultures for centuries prior to the introduction of European people, and different groups reacted to each other in varied ways.[3]

Native American societies had drastically shifted in the centuries prior to the first European settlers in North America due to economic, political or environmental pressures of a combination thereof.[4]  In many ways these pressured seemed to influence or define the manner in which they interacted, allied or fought against the Europeans that they encountered in later centuries, and many Native American cultures experienced periods of intense instability, violence and conflict with other tribes in nearby areas.[5]

The Spanish are the first European contact that many Native American tribes in the south encountered, and these explorers carried with them epidemic diseases that decimated large swaths of Native American population throughout the region, forcing them to abandon villages and homes and establish alliances with other tribes.[6]  While many Europeans, namely French traders, sought exchange relationships with Native tribes, the Spanish used a different tactic, viewing Europeans as superior to the barbarians of the Americas, seeking to control them and demand tribute.[7]

While Native American values were centered on exchange relationships, many European encroachers on the land viewed it as theirs for the taking, despite the centuries-long claim native tribes had on the land in question.[8]  It is this aspect of Native American history that tends to disturb me – the arrogance and superiority of many Europeans to claim a land that was already inhabited by ancient and rich cultures and to claim it as their property, regardless of the fact that it was already occupied, in some cases for hundreds of years.  That being said, however, many settlers carried on peaceful exchange and mutually beneficial relationships with many native tribes, at least for a time.  Had those relationships failed to exist, it’s possible that many English settlers in particular may have not survived the diverse and strange climate that they first found themselves in as they ventured to the new world.

[1] Neal Salisbury, “The Indian’s Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” The William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1996): 435-458.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.