Thursday, November 25, 2010

William Penn and the Indians

One of the myths of America is that the Pilgrims and the Indians had a "kumbaya" moment during the first winter after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock. The reality is that the Puritans were aggressive and hostile towards the local Wampapoags even as the first people made every effort to be hospitable and welcoming. Miles Standish even beheaded an Indian and committed other atrocities, for which his descendent has apologized to the Indians. The word "Thanksgiving" was used by the Puritans only after a military victory in which Indians were slaughtered. For the true story of the Pilgrims and Indians from an Indian perspective, see

The story of the Quaker encounter with the Indians is less well known. In fact, it is hardly known at all by most Americans, and is never told in schools. Nonetheless, it is very instructive and much more hopeful.
The icon of the encounter between Quakers and the Indians is Edward Hick's "Peaceable Kingdom." In the foreground it shows the scene from Isaiah in which the lion lies down with the lamb, and the child can handle snakes and other animals without harm, and there is peace in all of God's creation. In the background, Penn is signing a peace treaty with the Indians--a peace treaty which, unlike virtually all others whites made with the Indians, was never broken. The message: the Peaceable Kingdom requires us to have peaceful and just relationship with the first people of North America (whom Penn equated with the lost tribe of Israel). This belief is at the heart of our Quaker faith.

Penn wrote a letter about his encounter with the Indians which ironically begins by saying he was treated with more kindness by the Indians than by many people in England! Penn along with other Quakers went to prison for his religious beliefs, and many Quakers fled to Pennsylvania to escape persecution.

Pennsylvania was not only a place safe for Indians, it was a haven for people of all faiths. (That is, until non-Quakers came and began fighting the Indians.)

Penn took pains to learn the language of the Indians and study their culture. He not onlythought the Indians were the lost tribe of Israel, he also believed the Indian language was similar to Hebrew. He describes the Indians and their customs in great detail and with much sympathy, which I think you'll find fascinating.

Here's the link:

This was written ten years after the "King Phillip's war," in which the Puritans massacred the Indians--perhaps as many as 27,000, leaving only a remnant (3,000) alive.
I hope we take to heart what really happened when whites and Indians encountered each other, and listen to what the first people have to tell and teach us.


  1. It is difficult to see my grandchildren being taught the falsehood of peaceful relations between the Puritans and Native Americans. How do I keep the history accurate when their school teachers do not want to hear the "real story" and most likely do not know the truth themselves. These myths do us no good.

  2. John Ruth just gave a lecture entitled "William Penn: The Dream and the Disappointment" to Mennonites in Lancaster and Montgomery counties here in PA. He spoke of "dream paintings"- notably Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom"- but others as well, including the wampum belt given to Penn with a Quaker and a native holding hands (it was the native's dream). He also spoke of those (some Quaker) who took advantage of Penn and caused his native friends to wait with great expectation for his return, which never came.

  3. Thanks, Tony. I have found it remarkable that Edward Hicks saw the true relationship between the invaders and the first Americans in the note he wrote on many of his Peaceable Kingdoms:
    "The wolf did with the lambkin dwell in peace
    His grim carnivorous nature there did cease
    The leopard with the harmless kid laid down
    And not one savage beast was seen to frown
    The lion with the fatling on did move
    A little child was leading them in love;
    When the great PENN his famous treaty made
    With indian chiefs beneath the Elm-tree's shade."
    In each case, a natural aggressor is paired with a natural victim, the aggressor always being mentioned before the victim. So the relationship between English colonists and Indians is that the colonists ("the great PENN," mentioned first) are the natural aggressors and the Indians the victims (mentioned second). The history of the relationship between the Jamestown colonists and their first American hosts also bears this out.
    --Louis LeFevre, PYM Indian Committee

  4. Your blog starts off on the wrong foot. Pilgrims (who founded Plymouth) are not Puritans (who found Mass Bay). "For the true story of the Pilgrims and Indians from an Indian perspective, see"