Governor Winslow's Account of the Natives


The following is an excerpt (the first few pages) from Edward Winslow's description of the native Indians of New England. This portion describes their beliefs and wicked practices, for which Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob removed them and gave their land to the English.
(Bold text emphasis is mine.)




A few things I thought meet to add hereunto, which I have observed amongst the Indians; both touching their religion and sundry other customs among them. And first, whereas myself and others, in former letters, (which came to the press against my will and knowledge,) wrote that the Indians about us are a people without any religion, or knowledge of any God; therein I erred, though we could then gather no better; for as they conceive of many divine powers, so of one, whom they call Kiehtan, to be the principal maker of all the rest; and to be made by none. He, they say, created the heavens, earth, sea, and all creatures contained therein. Also that he made one man and one woman, of whom they and we and all mankind came; but how they became so far dispersed, that they know not. At first, they say, there was no sachem or king, but Kiehtan, who dwelleth above the heavens, whither all good men go when they die, to see their friends, and have their fill of all things. This his habitation lieth westward in the heavens, they say ; thither the bad men go also, and knock at his door, but be bids them quacket, that is to say, walk abroad, for there is no place for such ; so that they wander in restless want and penury. Never man saw this Kiehtan, only old men tell them of him, and bid them tell their children, yea, charge them to teach their posterities the same, and lay the like charge upon them. This power they acknowledge to be good; and when they would obtain any great matter, meet together and cry unto him; and so likewise for plenty, victory, etc., sing, dance, feast, give thanks, and hang up garlands and other things in memory of the same.


Another power they worship, whom they call Hobbamock, and to the northward of us, Hobbamoqui; this, as far as we can conceive, is the devil. Him they call upon, to cure their wounds and diseases. When they are curable, he persuades them he sends the same, for some conceived anger against them ; but upon their calling upon him, can and doth help them ; but when they are mortal and not curable in nature, then he persuades them Kiehtan is angry, and sends them, whom none can cure; insomuch as in that respect only they somewhat doubt whether he be simply good, and therefore in sickness never call upon him. This Hobbamock appears in sundry forms unto them, as in the shape of a man, a deer, a fawn, an eagle, etc., but most ordinarily a snake. He appears not to all, but the chiefest and most judicious among them; though all of them strive to attain to that hellish height of honor. He appears most ordinary, and is most conversant with three sorts of people; one, I confess I neither know by name or office directly; of these they have few, but esteem highly of them, and think no weapon can kill them; another they call by the name of Powah, and the third Paniese.


The office and duty of the Powah is to be exercised principally in calling upon the devil, and curing diseases of the sick or wounded. The common people join with them in the exercise of invocation, but do but only assent, or as we term it, say amen to that he saith ; yet sometime break out into a short musical note with him. The Powah is eager and free in speech, fierce in countenance, and joineth many antic and laborious gestures with the same, over the party diseased. If the party be wounded, he will also seem to suck the wound ; but if they be curable, (as they say,) he toucheth it not, but a shooke, that is the snake, or Wobsacuck, that is the eagle, sitteth on the shoulder, and licks the same. This none see but the Powah, who tells them he doth it himself. If the party be otherwise diseased, it is accounted sufficient if in any shape he but come into the house, taking it for an undoubted sign of recovery.


And as in former ages Apollo had his temple at Delphos, and Diana at Ephesus, so have I heard them call upon some as if they had their residence in some certain places, or because they appeared in those forms in the same. In the Powah's speech, he promiseth to sacrifice many skins of beasts, kettles, hatchets, beads, knives, and other the best things they have to the fiend, if he will come to help the party diseased; but whether they perform it I know not. The other practices I have seen, being necessarily called sometimes to be with their sick, and have used the best arguments I could to make them understand against the same. They have told me I should see the devil at those times come to the party; but I assured myself and them of the contrary, which so proved; yea, themselves have confessed they never saw him when any of us were present. In desperate and extraordinary hard travail in child-birth, when the party cannot be delivered by the ordinary means, they send for this Powah; though ordinarily their travail is not so extreme as in other parts of the world, they being of a more hardy nature ; for on the third day after child-birth, I have seen the mother with the infant, upon a small occasion, in cold weather, in a boat upon the sea.


Many sacrifices the Indians use, and in some cases they kill children. It seemeth they are various in their religious worship in a little distance, and grow more and more cold in their worship to Kiehtan: saying, in their memory, he was much more called upon. The Narragansets exceed in their blind devotion, and have a great spacious house, wherein only some few (that are, as we may term them, Priests) come: thither, at certain known times, resort all their people, and offer almost all the riches they have to their gods, as kettles, skins, hatchets, beads, knives, etc., all which are cast by the priests into a great tire that they make in the midst of the house, and there consumed to ashes. To this offering every man bringeth freely; and the more he is known to bring, hath the better esteem of all men. This, the other Indians about us approve of as good, and wish their Sachems would appoint the like; and because the plague has not reigned at Narraganset as at other places about them, they attribute to this custom there used.


The Panieses are men of great courage and wisdom, and to these also the devil appeareth more familiarly than to others, and as we conceive, maketh covenant with them to preserve them from death, by wounds with arrows, knives, hatchets, etc., or at least both themselves and especially the people think themselves to be freed from the same. And though against their battles all of them by painting, disfigure themselves, yet they are known by their courage and boldness, by reason whereof one of them will chase almost an hundred men; for they account it death for whomsoever stand in their way. These are highly esteemed of all sorts of people, and are of the sachems' counsel, without whom they will not war, or undertake any weighty business. In war their sachems, for their more safety, go in the midst of them. They are commonly men of great stature and strength, and such as will endure most hardness, and yet are more discreet, courteous and humane in their carriages than any amongst them, scorning theft, lying, and the like base dealings, and stand as much upon their reputation as any men. And to the end they may have store of-these, they train up the most forward and likeliest boys, from their childhood, in great hardness, and make them abstain from dainty meat, observing divers orders prescribed, to the end that when they are of age, the devil may appear to them, causing to drink the juice of sentry and other bitter herbs, till they cast, which they must disgorge into the platter, and drink again and again, till at length through extraordinary pressing of nature, it will seem to be all blood; and this the boys will do with eagerness at the first, and so continue till by reason of faintness, they can scarce stand on their legs, and then must go forth into the cold: also they beat their shins with sticks, and cause them to run through bushes and stumps and brambles, to make them hardy and acceptable to the devil, that in time he may appear unto them.


Sources: New England's Memorial - by Nathaniel Morton (appendix)

Contributed by David Kaspareit

posted February 2, 2010



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