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the Atlantic World in World History


Indigenous Peoples of the Merrimack River Valley in the Early Seventeenth Century: An Atlantic Perspective on Northeastern America

Christoph Strobel


     William Wood's book, New England's Prospect, originally published in 1634, is a familiar primary source to many interested in the early history of New England. The 90 some pages manuscript offer insights into the region's early 17th century environment, native peoples, and European-indigenous relations. It is an often-cited work by scholars of New England. There are few accounts available for this period, especially those that discuss the Merrimack River Valley, a scholarly area of my interest. It is this scarcity of materials that makes New England's Prospect an especially valuable primary source. Moreover, Wood's manuscript also provides a glimpse into the 17th century world of global cultural contact. This should make this manuscript also an interesting source to Atlantic and world historians.1

     As a college history instructor, I have also come to appreciate the value of New England's Prospect for students. Wood's work, in particular the edition edited by Alden T. Vaughan from 1977, offers a trans-Atlantic window into the early 17th century Merrimack River Valley and the Native American Atlantic Northeast.2 The book is of pedagogical value because it prompts my students to think critically about Wood's observations of the native peoples of the Merrimack Valley and the history of what is today the northeastern United States. I have used this book in a seminar class on the "History of the Native Peoples of the Northeast." The discussion takes about 75 minutes. I am thinking about using this book again in my course on America in World History and could also see myself using it in a class on the Atlantic World.3

     The discussion of New England's Prospect pursues several learning objectives.  The goal is to aid students to analyze in detail how Wood's book provides a glimpse into various indigenous cultures that are of relevance in my course: Native American's appearance and lifeways, their social, political, and family organization, and their intergroup relations, including European-Native American interaction. We explore how Wood's views might have shaped his image and impressions of Native Americans, and how those, in turn could have shaped his portrayal of the region's indigenous peoples. Thus, I encourage my students to examine this text as a product that emerges from a diverse English society, asking them to consider where and how the author, explicitly or implicitly, rationalizes a colonial agenda. New England's Prospect gets my students to critically examine and assess a major source frequently used by historians of early New England.

     In preparation for the lesson, to assure that the class has read and thought about the book before entering the discussion, the students compose a 4–5 page response paper. The paper prompt asks the students to think about the following issues:

New England's Prospect provides us a glimpse into various indigenous cultures of the Atlantic Northeast. Do you find Wood's description of Native Americans believable and to what degree? What factors, if any, have led Wood to produce such varied impressions of the Native Americans discussed in the document?

This is the second response paper students are asked to write for this class. They already know that they need to use specific examples and quotes from the reading to support their arguments. I require students to bring hard copies of their papers to class and to keep their papers until the end of the class, so that they incorporate their thoughts and quotes from their assignment into discussion.

Part 1: Looking at the Author and the Book

     I usually encourage my students to consider the background of authors of primary documents that I use in class. Knowing more about a writer can provide insights into her or his thinking, which can further our understanding about why, and with what goals in mind, a book was written. Our analysis of New England's Prospect is no different. Moreover, in this part of the lesson, I also introduce how scholars in recent years have interpreted this manuscript, so as to give students some insight into the impact that the book has on the study of the history of New England.

     I begin this lesson by putting the following question on the board. Who was William Wood? Basing this discussion on the students' reading of Vaughan's introduction and the information they can gather from Wood's writings, I flesh this question out with more specific follow-ups. What do we know about him?  Where did he live? What did he do during his stay in the colony? What was his background in England? How did he obtain the information he covered in his book? I post the few biographical comments and thoughts that the students can necessarily generate on the board. Wood likely lived in the Salem and Ipswich area around 1629 to 1633, and the students conclude that Wood provides little information about himself in New England's Prospect.

     Since we can gather little about William Wood from the book, I ask my students, what might be some potential 17th century records or sources that could help us to find out more about our author? "Tax records," "ship records," "church records," "deeds," are the usual responses, but the students also usually point out there is no evidence about Wood in these sources according to Vaughan. A close reader in the class points to Vaughan's introduction of New England's Prospect and reports that there are two possible mentions in the colonial records of Massachusetts Bay. In 1631, a "William Woods" took a Freeman's Oath. In September 1634, the year that saw the publication of New England's Prospect, the General Court sent a "lettres of thankefulness" to a "Mr Wood."4 I ask the students if this could be "our" William Wood, to which the students respond that his is a common name. Moreover, and even if these references are about William Wood, several realize, such information provides us again little to no information about the author. Hence, the students conclude that much of what we can say about Wood's life is speculation, but they also gain some appreciation about how hard it is to reconstruct the personal history of a common person in the 17th century Atlantic World.

     We switch gear and I ask the students about who they think Wood's intended audience was in the 17th century? As I do throughout the class, I ask my students a series of question to delve deeper into this topic, writing the main points of discussion on the board. Why does the first part of New England's Prospect focus predominantly on detailed descriptions of New England's natural environment? Students point out that Wood paints an enticing picture for prospective colonists in Britain. Wood underscores the region's beauty and fertility. We directly refer to passages that underscore the beauty of New England: "craggy mountains and pleasant vales, the stately woods and swampy groves, the spacious ponds and swift – running rivers."5 What does Wood suggest about the potential for agriculture in New England? I want my students to think about Wood's claims about the region's agricultural fertility. This question usually leads to a discussion, in which most students feel that Wood exaggerates the agricultural potential of the region. Some argue that he might have done so out of ignorance. Others suggest that he might have had an ulterior motive to attract colonists to the region, and by exaggerating the potential of farmland and climate, he made New England appealing to potential future colonists, which most of my students suggest are his intended audience. I point out to them that several scholars would agree with them. Some historians have suggested that Wood wrote the book to help spur a wave of British migration to New England.6 Another scholar even argues that this was "a book unabashedly written as propaganda" to attract English colonists.7

     I explain to my students that New England's Prospect is used widely as a source among scholars of New England. I ask the students, which academic fields have most likely made best use of this book as a source? "Literature," "History," and "American Studies" are usually the first responses. Students also grasp that Wood's description of flora, fauna, and geography explains the interest among scholars who work on New England's environment. Moreover, they correctly conclude that his writings on Native Americans make his work relevant to scholars who work on ethnohistory, indigenous studies, and anthropology.

Part 2: Teaching New England's Prospect as a Source on Native Peoples

     Given the topic of my course, much of the class discussion concentrates on Wood's description of the indigenous peoples of the Merrimack River Valley, New England, and the native Atlantic Northeast. We focus particular attention on how the author portrays Native Americans and analyze how he constructs his narrative.

     We first focus on Wood's descriptions of Native American appearance, and I remind students, that even though scholars who study the history of indigenous peoples in the region widely cite New England's Prospect as a reliable source on how native peoples dressed and behaved, this should not impede us from assessing the book critically. We look at passages in which Wood describes Native American dress, hairstyle, and physique at some length. He portrays Native Americans as tall, "straight bodied, strongly composed," and "healthful." Students discuss that Native Americans might have had healthier lifeways compared to Europeans, and that this might have fascinated Wood. We also explore that the emphasis on "healthful" Native Americans could relate to the author's above-discussed lengthy and fertile portrayals of nature – to reinforce the attractiveness of the region to English migrants.

     We also use the discussion of Wood to underscore the complexity of perceptions of "race" in early modern British thought, and how those complicate the processes of colonization that took place in New England. I use the quote below as well as several other references that seem to underscore Native American "fairness" or "whiteness" to spur discussion. Their "complexion is something more swarthy than Spaniards…. Their swarthiness is the sun's livery, for they are born fair."8 What is Wood saying here? What is this telling us about his perceptions of "race" and skin color? Why do you assume that he describes Native Americans in the way that he does? I gear discussion toward the point that into the early 19th century, numerous writers believed that the "environment" shaped the appearance of the body, and that these intellectuals believed in the unity of the human family. We discuss whether Wood appears to be an adherent of this school of thought. If none of the students raises the issue, I also ask them if they think that the perceived commonality in appearance, or the fact that New England Indians were "born fair," in Wood's mind, made collaboration between Native American and English peoples more likely. We discuss if perhaps Wood deemphasizes what we today would call racial difference due to his belief in and avocation for an imagined future colonial order based on unity between English and some Native Americans.

     New England's Prospect provides short vignettes of several of the indigenous peoples that lived in the native Atlantic Northeast. His narrative provides a glimpse into aspects of daily, political, economic, and social lives and culture of the Pequot, the Narragansett, and the "Connecticuts" (likely referring to the various native peoples in today's western Connecticut, Massachusetts, eastern New York, and Vermont), and several other indigenous groups. We focus on exploring the relations between what Wood calls the "Mohawks" (the Keepers of the Eastern Gate of the Haudenosaunee ("Iroquois")), the "Tarrenteens" (Native American groups likely later referred to as the "Micmac"), and the "Aberginians" (likely a term to describe the various members of what historians today call the "Pennacook" and "Massachusetts" alliances). It is helpful to first either create a map with, or have students create a map by themselves, to identify the approximate locations of the various Native American nations discussed by Wood. This exercise helps students gain geographic awareness. It assists students in evaluating the impact of location in relation to other native nations (and European colonial footholds), environment, and access to resources.

Figure 1
  Figure 1:Map of Southern New England, from William Wood, New England's Generation, 1634.  

     Wood argues that the Native Americans in the Merrimack River Valley and in today's eastern Massachusetts had "hopes" that the English might "relieve" them from attacks by their indigenous enemies. "Our Indians do fear" the Mohawk and the "Tarrenteens" as their "deadly enemies." New England's Prospect goes at length to depict the "Mohawk" as a "cruel bloody people" that were "better armed and weaponed" and as "cannibals" who practiced "captivity" and "torture." The "Tarrenteens," who according to Wood had access to firearms through the French, were another concern to the native peoples of the Merrimack River system. "Saving that they eat no man's flesh," they "are little less savage and cruel."

     What might have been the reasons for Wood to "play up" Haudenosaunee and Micmac violence? We surmise that Wood might have been more familiar with what he called the "Aberginians." This familiarity could have influenced a more positive opinion of these nations, which might have led to a more sympathetic understanding of these particular communities. Closely contrasting passages that describe the "Mohawk" and the "Tarrenteens" with those of the "Aberginians" brings up an interesting literary and cultural archetype that my students are familiar with from a prior class – the "brutal" and the "noble savage" stereotype. Wood depicts the Haudenosaunee as "cannibals," "bloody," "cruel," and "savage," but the "Aberginians" are friendly and accommodating noted for their "civility" and "kindness" who "in their own trim and natural disposition. . . be reported to be wise, lofty-spirited, constant in friendship to one another, true in their promise, and more industrious than many others."9

     Moreover, at several points in the text Wood refers to the "Aberginians" as "our Indians." I ask the students what they think Wood meant by "our Indians?" This question usually leads to a discussion that some Native Americans in the Atlantic Northeast allied themselves with the British, while others sought an alliance with the French or the Dutch. This is a good moment to underscore that geography influenced these alliances, but that they were also fluid and could shift. I want my students to grasp that native peoples and Europeans often pursued coalitions based on different motivations and understandings.

     New England's Prospect is also a great tool for teaching students about some of the stereotypes and moral evaluations that English colonial writers held about Native Americans in the early 17th century. One such example is Wood's depiction of the "drudgery" of Native American women who support their men.10 This was a popular perception among Puritan writers, but such depictions oversimplify the complexity of the gendered divisions of labor in Eastern Woodland societies. This is only one of several examples. From the portrayal of the character of Native Americans, to spiritual leaders, to indigenous fighting abilities, the book is full of generalizations and descriptions. Wood wrote, for example, that the Pennacook Sachem Passaconaway could "make the water burn, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphise himself into a flaming man."11 () My students pick up on such examples and have incorporated them into their papers, and this provides a rich ground for a guided discussion.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Sachem Passaconaway of the Pennacook fascinated 17th-century English colonists like Wood, who described him as a powerful leader with supernatural powers. The artistic representation here is not an accurate historic depiction.  

Part 3: Analyzing Wood's Vision of a Native-English Alliance

     In the final part of our lesson, we examine Wood's expressed desire for an "Aberginian"-English alliance. We analyze his description of the "Aberginians" partiality toward the English and their hospitality and assistance to the colonists. We discuss that Wood's aspiration for an English colonial order that included some indigenous groups likely influenced his narrative and representation of Native Americans.

     I launch the discussion on this subject by steering the students first towards an illuminating quote about Native American "love" for the English:

once there was a proffer of an universal league amongst all the Indians… to the intent that they might all join in one united force to extirpate the English, our Indians refused the motion, replying they had rather be servants to the English of whom they were confident to receive no harm and from whom they had received so many favors and assured good testimonies of their love.

I ask the students if they believe this account is historically accurate. Some of the students take Wood at his word, but several others suggest that Wood might have just made up the story. Why would he do that I ask? Several students argue that this says a great deal about Wood's desire and imaginations of a future colonial order between English and Native Americans. What does this and other passages reveal about Wood's view of the English efforts at creating a colony? Do you believe his views are accurate, distorted, or maybe naïve? We look at another interesting passage to develop our discussion, in which Wood quotes a Native American person describing different European colonial groups. "The Spaniard they say is all one aramouse (viz., all one as a dog); the Frenchman hath a good tongue but a false heart; the Englishman all one speak, all one heart, wherefore they more approve of them than of any nation."12 What are we to make of this quote? Do you believe Wood here? After analyzing the quote, in a guided discussion in which I provide historic background information, we consider other reasons for native peoples to pursue closer relations with the English or to avoid outright military resistance. We explore how geographic proximity to the English colonies fueled native fears of potential English attacks or left them more vulnerable. Disease and the resulting decimation of the native population and continuous English territorial encroachment reinforced these processes further. Thus, some native peoples in the Merrimack Valley and New England came to believe that friendly relations with the colonies and the English Crown might be a useful strategy to maintain their sovereignty.

     Why did New England's Prospect advocate for close and peaceful relations between English and Native Americans? Some students wonder if Wood, through his depictions of Native Americans, tried to alleviate the fears of potential English colonist. We also discuss that he might have held those believes due to his moral, political, religious, or personal convictions. In an effort to emphasize native hospitality, Wood writes, that English travelers "have been kindly entertained into their habitations, where they have rested and reposed themselves more securely than if they had been in some blind obscure old England's inn, being the next day directed in the right way." Why does Wood go at length to tell this anecdote?13 We also explore, how according to Wood, the colonists could rely on Native Americans as allies to advance their social order, class structure, and colonial ambitions. "Many lazy boys that have run away from their masters have been brought home" by their native neighbors. Wood also believed the colony would be able to use Native Americans as guides and helpers to familiarize the colonists with the landscape.14 We explore if his belief in the future possibility of a peaceful and cooperative society influenced his description of Native Americans.


     To wrap up our discussion I remind students that as a source New England's Prospect provides us a valuable glimpse into the worlds of the early 17th century Merrimack Valley, New England, and the Atlantic Northeast, as well as English impressions of Native American lifeways and the dynamics of indigenous-colonial relations . The lesson and the assigned paper provide my students with a hands-on opportunity to work as historians through a primary document analysis, enabling them to evaluate a source widely used by scholars and to gain an in-depth understanding of how hard it is to reconstruct the lives of early modern peoples.

Christoph Strobel is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of The Global Atlantic, 14001900, The Testing Grounds of Modern Empire, co-author with Alice Nash of Daily Life of Native Americans from Post-Columbian through Nineteenth-Century America, and many other publications. He may be reached at


1 Numerous historians have used Wood as a source to examine New England's Native American populations, the connections of nature and cultural history, and the impact it had on Puritan migration. See for example Howard S. Russell, Indian New England Before the Mayflower (Boston: University Press of New England, 1981), 11, 20, 30, 32, 35, 54, 79, 84, 90, 100, 111, 112, 121, 125, 126, 128, 130, 142, 168, 170, 176, 189, 198, 201; Alden T. Vaughan, New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians 16201675 Third Edition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 26, 35, 39, 41, 42, 43, 48, 51, 61, 247; Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest  (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 63, 90; Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 15001643 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 32–33, 103, 158, 188–89, 192, 204; Virginia DeJohn Anderson, New England's Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Cambridge University, 1991), 25, 36, 52–53, 56, 58; David Stewart-Smith, "The Pennacook Indians and the New England Frontier, circa 1604–1733." Ph.D. diss., Union Institute, Cincinnati Ohio, 1998, chapter 3; William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 6, 9, 22–3 25, 28, 30–1, 45, 49–50, 55, 59, 85, 90, 100; John L. Canup, Out of the Wilderness: The Emergence of an American Identity in Colonial New England (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1990), 43; John F. Martin, Profits in the Wilderness: Entrepreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 114–15.

2 Neal Salisbury coins the phrase of the Native American Atlantic Northeast. The region encompasses today's New England, and parts of New York, the mid-Atlantic region, and eastern Canada. For a definition of this concept see Neal Salisbury, "The Atlantic Northeast" in The Oxford Handbook of American Indian History, ed. Frederick Hoxie (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 335–58.

3 William Wood, New England's Prospect, ed. Alden T, Vaughan (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977).

4 Vaughan, "Introduction," New England Prospect, 3–5. For the relevant documents see Nathaniel Shurtleff, ed. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (162886), 5 vols. (Boston: Printer to the Commonwealth, 1853–54), 1: 128, 366.

5 Wood, 90–91.

6 See for example Salisbury, 188; Anderson, 43–4, 57–58.

7 For this argument see Stewart-Smith, 106. For an argument that Wood's description might have been too "modest" to attract a large wave of immigrants see Anderson, 43–44. For some evidence about how Wood's work might have had a positive impact on immigration to Ipswich see Alison Games, Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 183.

8 Wood, 82–83.

9 Wood, for quotes in this and the paragraph above see 80, 88, and 79, see also 75–80, 82–89.

10 Wood, 112–16.

11 Wood, 100-101.

12 Wood, 89, 91–92.

13 Wood, 90–91.

14 Wood, 90–91.

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