When I wrote about Anne Hutchinson as America’s first feminist theologian a few years ago, I mentioned that I had a Sackett ancestor living in Boston at the time, who might well have been a follower of Hutchinson. That branch of my family tree has since been shown to be false. Recently, while looking into the branch that replaced it, I discovered that in 1637 my 9x great-grandfather William Wodell was required to turn in all of his guns and other weapons because he had been “seduced” and led into “dangerous errors” by a Mr. Wheelwright and Mrs. Hutchinson.
In 1643 William Wodell was charged with “heresy and sedition” in relation to “blasphemous errors.” He was convicted and banned from Boston. He retreated to property he had purchased in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, which had been founded by the Hutchinsons and others fleeing persecution in Boston. Wodell became a respected member of the Quaker community in Portsmouth, holding a number of important public offices before his death some 50 years later.
My happiness at finding an ancestor whose convictions I could admire, was to be short-lived. The next morning, I discovered that in 1677 the respected Quaker William Wodell bought a 6 year-old Indian girl who had been captured in King Phillip’s War. Indian women and children were captured and sold as slaves during both the Pequot War (1636-1638) and King Phillip’s War (1675-1676). Some of those captured were sent to the West Indies, while others were purchased by English colonists.
One transcribed legal document records the purchase by William Wodell of an Indian woman named Hannah for the sum of 4 pounds and 2 shillings from Adam Right of Duxbury in the Colony of New Plymouth (the Pilgrim Colony). Mr. Right testified that the said Hannah was captured by His Majesty’s (British) army and condemned to perpetual servitude and slavery by a Captain Benjamin Church on March 3, 1676-7. The transfer of ownership of Hannah to Mr. Wodell occurred on January 9, 1677.
Perhaps due to Quaker sensibilities, the Portsmouth Colony replaced slavery with indentured servitude. Mr. Wodell was allowed to keep a 6 year-old Indian girl named Hannah as his indentured servant for a period of 15 years. This girl was identified as the daughter of “one meecquapew an Indian woman late of pocaset.” The girl’s mother was indentured to Mr. Wodell for 2 years. I imagine that the girl was indentured for a longer period with the intention of “protecting” her until she came of age.
William Wodell, who was in his 60s, was a widower whose grown children were no longer at home. He had been taught that he needed a woman to perform household chores. For 2 years, he would have Hannah and her mother to look after him, and after that, 8 year-old Hannah. This must have seemed to him to be his right. He may have treated his Indian servants with a certain degree of kindness, but he was not required to do so.
In an interview with Wendy Warren, the author of New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, National Public Radio host Terry Gross asked how the Puritans reconciled their commitment to religious freedom with the practice of enslaving other human beings. Warren responded:
Well, I wouldn’t say that they came for religious freedom, or I guess I would limit that a little and say they came for freedom for themselves, to practice as they wish[ed]. But they certainly weren’t embracing any sort of melting pot. They were actually quite exclusive of anyone they felt veered from their doctrine.
She noted further that:
[The Puritans] were not unusual in embracing slavery. The Bible approved of it, they felt. And the English approved of it, so did all of Europe. It wasn’t anything anyone was questioning at the time.
The story of Indian servitude and slavery in America remains largely unknown to the average – and I would say even to the very well-educated – American. We continue to imagine – or to wish to imagine – that America has been a shining city on a hill, committed to liberty and justice for all from its beginnings up to the present day.
The truth of our history is a great deal more complicated than that.
The conviction that all men and women are not equal is deeply embedded in the stories of America’s founding fathers.
When, fearing the long arm of the Boston Puritans, Anne Hutchinson moved her family to the Dutch territory of New York, she refused to arm her household, stating that she had always gotten along well with her Indian neighbors. In fact, Hutchinson had disputed the legitimacy of the Pequot War at her trial. Unfortunately for Anne and her family, the problems between the Indians and the colonists could not be resolved by individuals, no matter how good their will. Anne and her family were killed by Indians in New York in about 1643.
Also see: “Newport Middle Passage”
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.