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”
“Forgotten History: How New England Colonists Embraced the Slave Trade”
“William Wordell: Fleming Family History”
“The Changing Nature of Indian Slavery in New England, 1670-1720”
Servants and Servitude in Colonial America
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.
8 thoughts on “Quaker Ancestor Buys 6 Year-Old Indian Captive by Carol P. Christ”
Thank you for this post, Carol. For Christmas someone gave me An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, which gives not only a detailed account but explores the origins and effects of European (particularly) British colonialism. Because of this book, I’ve decided to write about one of my ancestors for my next FAR post. I sat down at my computer to begin gathering my thoughts and found your post. I so appreciate your in-depth research into the ancestors’ stories and how they are part of the collective story. Thank you for sharing them here.
I also have Quaker ancestors and was a member of the Religious Society of Friends for ten years (1980s to early 90s). During that time I heard over and over that it took one hundred years for Friends to reach consensus on the abolition of slavery, though many individual Quakers before and after may have worked for that cause. This reminder was supposed to encourage patience while Friends labored with each other over contemporary controversies–reproductive rights, same sex marriage, and conceiving of the divine as Goddess. Even universalist as distinct from Christ-centered worship was a source of conflict at that time. One reason I left the Society of Friends (which I still love and respect for many reasons) was that I found I could not submit to the process of corporate discernment that might take one hundred years. Friends have always had a witness for peace and non-violence–it took them that much time to come to the realization that slavery is a form of violence.
Indigenous slavery was so well woven into the warp and weft of all American history that it extended to Native peoples as well. Often these young women were taken in conflicts between tribes especially those with mixed ancestry,, but not confined to the latter. Then they were often converted to Christianity by force. You know the story.
Oh this is so heartbreaking. There was a very good story in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about the history of Thanksgiving from a native perspective. One of the points the writer–historian Philip DeLoria–made was that the enshrinement of the Puritans (and perhaps also the Quakers) as “our” American ancestors has worked to obscure the always multi-ethnic history of this continent and nation. And the story of the “happy” Indians working with the white settlers has of course obscured the violence that subjugated those natives.
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Thank you Carol. You always write such enlightening eye-opening pieces of forgotten history which need to be reclaimed. Because of your writing I recently finished a book about Matilda Joslyn Gage. I had only barely heard of her.
Interesting how the Puritans had only come for their own freedom, not for that of others. That bill is still being paid and unless we face it head on, will continue to be paid, and mostly by the most vulnerable among us.
Janet, you put it well “the Puritans came for their own freedom, not that of others.”
In addition, they were not even committed to the freedom of all Puritans. They immediately established theocracies in New England. Rule by God was understood to be expressed through male leaders of church and state. The so-called “anti-nomian” controversy in early New England came down this: both sides agreed that God should rule but the question was how we know God’s will. Hutchinson and some of my ancestors were accused of heresy because they believed the Holy Spirit dwelled in everyone, not just in the leaders of church and state. Individuals informed by the Holy Spirit were an “unruly bunch.” There was no guarantee they would obey the laws of church or state! This is why they were called “anti-nomian” against rule by laws.
In some cases people would buy children to get them out of mistreatment but could not let them go until they were old enough to fund a good position. I would not be sure that my ancestor did poorly without more information. Moral relativity is part of life.
Fascinating story. I think it would be hard for any of us to avoid having ancestors who owned slaves… understanding how to construct meaning from the decidedly mixed bag of our ancestors’ ethics is certainly a worthy and lifelong project. Thank you for these important insights.