More than a century after the Puritans converted praying Indians and organized them into towns, they fought on the side of the Americans during the Revolutionary War.
The Puritans believed the native tribes to be idolatrous savages who needed enlightenment and redemption. Some Puritans thought the Indians belonged to the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
The Massachusetts Bay charter declared part of the Puritan mission to be “To winn and incite the natives of the country to the knowledge and Obedience of the onlie true God and Saviour of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth.” The first seal featured a Native American saying, “Come over and help us.”
The current state seal features an arm holding a sword poised above a Native American. The motto, translated from Latin, reads, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” Many view the seal as offensive, and in 2021 Gov. Charlie Baker ordered a commission to recommend changes.
On October 28, 1646, in Nonantum (now Newton), missionary John Eliot preached his first sermon to members of the Massachusett tribe in their own language. He eventually translated the Bible into the Massachusett language and had it printed, the first Bible published in America.
Eliot and other missionaries then continued to convert Indians.
The praying Indians were set apart from the colonists and from disagreeable neighboring tribes. They became farmers, established homesteads, built frame houses, lost their tribal identities and intermarried with blacks and whites.
Praying towns in Massachusetts included Gay Head and Christiantown on Martha’s Vineyard; Nantucket, Natick, Mashpee, Grafton, Dartmouth and Herring Pond in Plymouth. In Connecticut, Nipmuc praying towns included Maanexit, believed to be in today’s Fabyan, Quinnatisset, six miles south of Maanexit, and Wagaquasset in Woodstock.
Historian Gary Nash argued after 10 years of effort, only about a thousand Indians settled in four villages of praying Indians. Fewer than 100 declared their conversion to the Puritan version of congregationalism.
The weaker and more demoralized tribes responded to the missionaries, hoping to avoid war and to protect their territory.
During the American Revolution, as many as 100 praying Indians enlisted in the Continental Army. They integrated with other units. Some Indian mariners belonged to John Glover’s Marblehead storied regiment, and some belonged to the 1st Rhode Island regiment.
The 1st Rhode Island earned a reputation as the Black Regiment because it had many African-American soldiers. But it also included Native Americans. They fought well at the Battle of Rhode Island, which Lafayette called “the best fought action of the war.”
But Glover’s Regiment deserves special mention. As historian Patrick O’Donnell puts it in his new book, The Indispensables,
…the American Revolution would have met an early, dramatic demise had it not been for the SEAL-like operations and extraordinary battlefield achievements of this diverse, unsung group of men and their commander…
Glover’s elite unit rescued the Continental Army from destruction after the Battle of Long Island in a Dunkirk-like evacuation. And the regiment also saved the patriot cause when it ferried 2,400 men, their horses and artillery across the Delaware River in a blinding snowstorm.
Praying Indians Who Served
Historian George Quintal, Jr., compiled their service histories in his book Patriots of Color: ‘A Peculiar Beauty and Merit.’
- James Anthony, born in Natick, served for eight months in 1775 under Col. Jonathan Ward. He then re-enlisted from 1777 to 1780 in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under Col. William Shepherd. He also fought at Saratoga and camped at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777. Anthony got his discharge on March 14, 1780.
- Alexander Quapish, born around 1741 in Yarmouth, Mass., enlisted in Dedham in 1775. He belonged to Col. Loammi Baldwin’s main guard. But he got sick in March 1776 and died in Needham. A man named Michael Bacon, likely the father of a 10-year-old drummer boy Quapish befriended, took care of him in his last days and buried him. Bacon then sought compensation.
- Ceasar Ferrit had West Indian, French, Dutch, and Natick Indian ancestry. He was born around 1720, raised in Boston by an English family and moved to the praying town of Natick in 1751. Ferrit volunteered as a minutemen at Lexington and Concord with his son John, and he helped ambush British soldiers in Lexington. He also served in militias and regiments from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. Ferrit was about 61 when he was discharged in 1781.
Today, descendants of the Praying Indians from Natick have organized as the Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag.
This story was updated in 2021.