The Incident at Marlborough

From August 14, 1675 to August 19, the people of Marlborough looked on as the ill-fated troop of soldiers returned, wounded and broken from the battle at Brookfield. The next few weeks would help define the treatment of all Indians in America for the next centuries.

On Sunday, August 22, the anxiety was increased to the nth degree. Lancaster, at the time a neighboring community which included the present day towns of Berlin and Bolton among others, was attacked and at least seven were killed. Suspicion quickly came upon the Praying Indian community at Marlborough.

Daniel Gookin, Administrator of Indian Affairs for the colony described what happened in great detail in his report titled, “The Doings and Sufferings of the Praying Indians.” During the summer, as tensions rose and Indians were forced to align with Pokunoket Chief Metacom (aka King Philip) or the English, a large body of Nipmuc Praying Indians made their way into Marlborough. The numbers of Indians rose in Marlborough to almost match the numbers of the local English. According to Gookin, “(They) built a fort upon their own land, which stood near the centre of the English town, not far from the church or Meeting House; hence they hoped not only to be secured, but to be helpful to the English, and on this pass and frontier to curb the common enemy.”

The presence of these strangers in Marlborough could only have a threatening effect on the locals. To make matters worse, Chief Onamog had died the year before, leaving the Indians without their well respected leader. There was no one who could match his ability to deal with the English when things went wrong. Tensions had worsened soon after his death.

The events in the surrounding area now gave the English fears for their own safety. When rumors spread that the refugee Indians might be responsible for the tragedy in Lancaster, they sought the help of Captain Samuel Mosely who was in the area scouting with his troop of irregulars.

Mosely was a nefarious character who gained his reputation fighting and defeating pirate ships along the New England coast. He was a favorite of the governor and loved by the people, but he was disliked by the command of the regular army for his undisciplined and independent behavior. He was allowed to create his own troop, which he collected from his mercenary seamen, commuted prisoners released for service, and those too young to serve in the regular army. Mosely hated all Indians including the allied Praying Indians.

He arrived in Marlborough on August 30. The day prior, the Marlborough militia had confiscated all the weapons of the Praying Indians which had been paid for by the Corporation at London for their defense against the common enemy. A few of the Nipmuc Indians had captured an Indian named David, along with his brother Andrew who had been scouting the woods around Marlborough. Mosely took this David, placed him against a tree and threatened to shoot him. Fearing for his life, he implicated eleven of the Nipmuc refugees at Marlborough, including his captors, for the attack on Lancaster.

On August 31, Mosely, in his indiscriminate manner, decided to charge fifteen of the refugees, including David. Gookin wrote, “(He) sent (them) down to Boston with a guard of soldiers pinioned and fastened with lines from neck to neck.” They would have marched through Sudbury and Watertown and Cambridge on their way to Boston on the main road, a spectacle that would terrify both the townspeople and the Praying Indians as well. Gookin believed that the whole affair was, in his words, “a foundation and beginning of much trouble, that befell both the English and the Indians afterward.”

Sketch of the Incident at Marlborough from the Museum in the Streets

On the same day, a meeting of the War Council was held to determine what should be done with the Praying Indians who were now seen as a problem, if not the enemy. Five decisions were directed at the situation in Marlborough and effectively closed the Praying Indian plantation there. 

Indians were to be confined to designated plantations. Okam­mademesit (Marlborough) was the only still-inhabited plantation to be closed. This was arguably the first act in America quarantining Indians into reservations on a large scale.

Indians were not to travel more than one mile from their village unless accompanied by the English. The Marlborough Indians had acted as scouts, patrolling the area to warn of enemy activities. This effectively marginalized the Indians and forbade a cultural norm long accepted by the English.

In addition, Indians were prevented from entertaining “strange Indians,” an otherwise common practice among the Praying Indians and other Algonquian Indians. This act forced Indians to abandon another cultural norm. Finally, Indians were forbidden to receive enemy plunder. To add injury to insult, leave was given to allow any Indian seen wandering “in our towns or woods” to be captured or killed.

According to Daniel Gookin, the trial of the Lancaster suspects was held in September. Two of the accused turned out to be visitors from the Praying Indian town of Natick. They were released the second week of September which precipitated a near riot.

The evidence at the trial was thin. A claim was made that they had been tracked returning from Lancaster near the time of the attack, but evidence showed that they were at the local Praying Indian church service at the time. The bandolier was said to belong to one of the slain in Lancaster, but there was no evidence that this was so. One of the Indians had a bloody shirt, but this was determined to have come from a deer kill from weeks before.

Nonetheless, even though the Indian David retracted his accusation and two other Indians imprisoned for unrelated crimes testified that the Nashaway Sachem ‘One Eyed John’ Monaco had committed the attack, the refugees were convicted. The General Court, however, overturned the verdict. A second trial brought about the same result and the General Court, once again overturned the verdict.

In separate trials, David was accused of shooting at a shepherd boy in Marlborough and was sold into slavery. Joseph Spoonant was accused of accessory to murder and was also sold into slavery. Marlborough historian John Bigelow believes that the Spoonant name is associated with Spoon Hill near Hosmer Street.

The clamor of the people begun with the incident at Marlborough, never subsided. The strategy of isolating the Indians to five plantations was defeated by other incidents blamed on, but not committed by the Indian residents. About a month later, at the end of October, 1675, the Indians were sent to Deer Island, a bleak and cold place to live. Many of the Marlborough Indians were known to have gone there.

Many, if not most of the accused, having suffered such abuse at the hands of the English, refused to go to Deer Island and went over to the enemy.

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