The Indian issue in the Colonies Essay

The Indian issue in the Colonies

There is no doubt that the Indian issue in general in the colony has to do with the English settlement in their land. This was clearly reflected in their ruthless and unsympathetic attitudes towards the settlers as the Indian’s was marking them out for slaughter. Judging from history, this was apparently the case in most colonies around this new found land of the English colonies.

The English colonization of Virginia and North Carolina as narrated by Byrd (1841) began in 1584 through a grant obtained by Walter Raleigh from Queen Elizabeth by letters dated March 25th, 1584 (Byrd, p. 1). The first batch of the English colony were a failure in view of their false expectation and attitudes in the new world which must have led to some fatal disagreement and laziness resulting to their starvation  or to their being cut to pieces by the Indians (p. 2). The succeeding batch of English colony however, was more successful and was able to make peace with the Indians.

While the colony struggled to live side by side peacefully with the Indians, they brought with them their religion and labored to convert the poor Indians to Christianity. Their effort however was hindered by the colony’s refusal to intermarry with the natives, an Indian issue to the colony which hindered the peace they had established from becoming a lasting peace. The natives according to Byrd could not in any way “persuade themselves that the English were heartily their friends, so long as they disdained to intermarry with them” (p. 3). On the part of the English colony, Byrd admitted this concern. He stated, “For my part, I must be of opinion, as I hinted before, that there is but one way of converting these poor infidels, and reclaiming them for barbarity, and that is, charitably to intermarry with them….” (Byrd, p. 37).

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Byrd’s Dividing Line, however, emphasized on the Indian religious beliefs about life after death, in which according to an Indian man named Bearskin, both the bad and the good travel on the same road. But at a certain point, they were parted by a flash of lightning, the good are led to place that might be called by the English as heaven and bad to the place that might be equivalent to hell (Byrd, p. 51). Byrd’s point of view of the Indian dividing line of the good and bad applies to his view of the Indians as people of equal dignity. The dividing line that separates the English colony from the Indians was thin and this was only about the religious beliefs and about the difference in opportunity for improvement, rather than intellectual or physical superiority.

In the final analysis of Byrd’s view of the Indian issue in the colony, it appears that basically, there was nothing wrong to make an alliance to these people by virtue of intermarriage. Emphasizing on the thin differences, Byrd stated, “All nations of men have the same natural dignity, and we all know that the very bright talents maybe lodged under a very dark skin. The principal difference between one people and another proceeds only from the different opportunities of improvement” (p. 37). It was precisely this reason that according to Byrd, that the Indians want understanding. Byrd’s emphasis therefore on the Indian issue in the colony concerns about their dignity as men equal to the English colony.

            Regarding the Indian religiosity, Mather (1853) pointed out that they generally “acknowledg’d and worship’d many gods; therefore they greatly esteemed and reverene’d their preists, powaws, or wizards, who were esteemed as having immediate converse with the gods…” (p. 425).

Apparently, aside from the native Indian’s demand for intermarriages with the colony, the belief in the one powerful being was also one of the Indian issues among the colony. An analysis of Cotton Matter’s narration of the Indian religious belief depicts the idea that these poor natives had an open communication with the colony in matters of religion. Mather’s concrete knowledge of the Indian belief system suggests a meaningful exchange of religious ideas between the natives and colony.

Apparently, the Indian belief system was very complicated as there were mediums that mediate between the people before their gods. Among them were the powaws, the priests, and wizards who had the power to converse with the gods. They could also pray to their individual gods for healing of evil inflicted diseases and to convey to the colony the message from the gods. Mather (1853) stated,

The other I shall instance in was a relation from Capt. Thomas Dagget, Esq., now deceased, and Richard Sarson, ESq., justices of the peace; who being on an island, where a bewitch’d woman lay in great extremity, and wholly impotent—the powaws there having without success endeavor’d the cure—the related sent to Martha’s vine yard for more famous’d powaws; the said gentlemen were admitted to be present on certain conditions; the powaws go to dancing, who, with the spectators, used certain ceremonies usual in such cases. One of those powaws praying to his god, with ardent desires and vervency… The issue was, they in a deer skin, caught the spirit which entered the woman. This they said, was the spirit of an English man drown’d in the adjacent sound: Yet it was supposed the powaw was by which bewitched her…” (p. 427).

            In the above text, it was apparent that sickness and evil inflected diseases were experienced by the colony in which the Indian powaws or diviners were sought to cast out such kind of wretchedness. Thus, it seemed to look, the opposite; it is more like the colony’s issue with native Indians rather than the Indian issue in the colony.

            But in the context of Mather, it was quite clear that the major issue of the Indians in the colony pertains to their witchcraft practices performed by their powaws influencing the English colony in way it wrought disease and misfortune on the colony. From Mather’s point of view, he seemed to suggest that the Indian powaws and other mediums were trying to influence by the colony by seducing them with their diabolic skills. Mather stated,

“It was afterwards by them confessed, that upon the arrival of the English in these parts, the Indians employed their sorcerers, whom they call powaws, like Balaam to curse them, and let loose their demons upon them, to shipwreck them, to distract them, to poison them, or in any way to ruin them. All the noted powaws in the country spent three days together in diabolic conjurations, to obtain the assistance of the devils against the settlement of these English” (p. 55).

            The powaws, Mather asserted, employed diabolic power to inflict diseases such impotency, lameness, and even death to persons and were displaying their art in performing things beyond humane and through their by diabolic skill (p. 426). Citing the case of a certain George who was tormented by certain disease and who also became impotent was advised by his friends to seek the help of the powaws, concluding him to be bewitched. These kind of evil practices dangerously influenced the English colonies as they took it seriously and were willing to burn those who were responsible. Mather stated, “…being persuaded that a great powaw had bewitched the sick: They threaten him that, as who had bewitched, unless he would cure the sick: They would burn in the fire” (p. 426).

            The one thing that is apparent based on Mather’s account of the experience of the English colony of such evils in the hands of the Indian powaws, was that, the power of evil was very prominent during this time. The witchcraft practices became powerful tools of the Indians to destruct, discourage, and destroy the moral of the English colony in their settlement in the new world. However, it was also evident that behind the diabolic power working on the powaws to cast misfortune on the colony, God was also working on the side of the colony. According to Mather, in the year 1644, God used a man by the name of Thomas Mayhew as an evangelist for the conversion of these gentiles. Mather pointed out that God stirred this man with “an holy zeal and resolution to assay what success he might find in that work; he takes opportunity to insinuate the love and good will he bore to the people; and soon finds the occasion to let them know their deplorable condition under Satan…” (p. 427).

            Thus, in the final analysis, the Indian issue in the colony was a picture of the encounter of powers between God and the devil. The Indian issue representing the powers of evil through witchcraft and other magical powers performed by the powaws were obviously to seduce the colony to believe such powers as powerful enough to provide them healing, and other benefits that might be available as a result of believing and performing such evil practices. On the other hand, God’s power is working through the testimony and the commitments of the English colonies, and to their faith in the true God. God’s great power is revealed by their effort to evangelize these ruthless gentile natives. Such is the case of Mr. Thomas Mayhew who became an evangelist for the conversion of these Indians to Christianity.


Byrd, W. (1841) The Westover Manuscript Petersburg: Harvard College Library

Mather, C. & Robbins, T. (1855) Magnalia Christi Americana England: Silas Andrus & Son