Christopher Columbus, Humphrey Gilbert, and the Importance of Indigenous Peoples Day

Every time Columbus Day arrives or I find myself driving along the Christopher Columbus Highway in Connecticut (I-91), I think about how the deification of Columbus not only hides the basic violence of colonialism and exploration broadly, but the specific violence that took place in New England. The focus on Columbus allows New Englanders, including those who dislike Columbus, to put distance between themselves and that first wave of violence and pestilence that accompanied Spanish conquistadors arriving in the Caribbean. The English exploration and colonization of New England, and the entire English colonial project, contained the same violence. While the bloody history of colonization in New England has been gaining notoriety through important discussions of the Pequot War and King Philip’s War1, I would like to take a moment to focus on the “discovery” of what we now call New England by the English and the ways in which it paralleled Columbus.

A would-be Christopher Columbus of New England

One of the first English expeditions to the Northeast of North America (including New England) was launched in the 1570s by Humphrey Gilbert. Gilbert, perhaps best known for putting the impaled heads of his Irish enemies on the path leading to his tent during his military campaigns in Ireland, received all of North America not already occupied by another “Christian Prince” from Queen Elizabeth. This blood soaked man was a dedicated entrepreneur, and, like Columbus, he began to theorize about the nature of this new land. He collected skilled navigators and intellectuals around him including John Dee, Richard Hakluyt the younger, and Richard Hakluyt the elder. In 1578, Gibert sent Simão Fernandes in a fast barque, Squirrell, to learn about his claims. The voyage of Squirrell was Gilbert’s Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Fernandes quickly traveled across the Atlantic and gathered information for a later expedition.

In 1583, Gilbert launched a much larger voyage, reminiscent of Columbus’s second voyage.2 Just like Columbus’s second voyage involved far more men then his first, Gilbert scaled up. Hundreds of men on several vessels went to America where Gilbert proudly declared to the world (a group of European fishing vessels in Newfoundland) that he was taking possession of North America. They planned to set up a colony, but eventually everyone decided to sail back to England with plans to try again. On the return voyage, Gilbert’s vessel floundered in a storm and he died.3 In Gilbert’s voyages we do not see the violence that Columbus would become involved with in his later voyages. Why? Gilbert was a man of violence. He had an established track record of slaughtering his non-Protestant enemies. but he died before he could bring that to the Northeast. Those who followed him also signal to the violence inherent in the endeavor of English exploration.

A map made for Humphrey Gilbert

Two groups of explorers are worth mentioning. Bartholemew Gosnold’s expedition in 1602 regularly harassed the indigenous people of New England (Algonquians). The accounts left by Gabriel Archer hint at sexual assault against the Algonquians, noting that the women were unwilling to “Admit of any modest touch.” Archer also describes the expedition stealing canoes.When the English began to build a fort, indicating their plans to stay, they had created enough ill will to provoke a response: around fifty armed indigenous men arrived to stop them. Ambushes plagued the English for the remainder of their time, and they eventually fled.4 Similarly, Martin Pring’s expedition in 1603 regularly invited indigenous people into their camp to trade, then ordered their large dogs to attack the Algonquians as a form of entertainment. Eventually, Algonquians assaulted his encampment and even went as far as to ignite a nearby forest to drive the English away.5

The English who came to New England were militaristic and prepared for violence

Readers may correctly observe that the violence and death associated with these expeditions did not reach the same scale as Columbus. Why? There are two answers. The first is more simple. The violence and death did reach comparable scales. Disease waves swept New England in the aftermath of English exploration. Slaughter and oppression were a regular part of English-indigenous relations in the region during the 1600s. However, we should not ignore the delayed timeline of this overt violence. As such, the role of indigenous people in New England in averting violence cannot be understated. The indigenous people of the Northeast quickly realized the threat that the English posed and stopped it. Certain Algonquian individuals played essential roles. A Wabanaki man named Skicowaros, kidnapped by an English expedition in 1605, accompanied another expedition to New England in 1607. Skicowaros used the English trust in him as a tool. The English allowed him to visit Wabanaki towns. Evidence suggests that while visiting other Wabanaki, he convinced them to withdraw from the English. Without the food and trade from indigenous people, the English expedition eventually returned to England.6

So, as this holiday arrives, I want to emphasize the importance of observing Indigenous Peoples Day. Indigenous Peoples Day leaves room for us to understand the widespread violence of colonialism and exploration across the Americas. It also enables us to recognize the power and heroism of indigenous people like Skicowarros in the face of terrible threats.

Paleography of the day: A murder in the land records

Recently, while looking through records on Connecticut’s boundary disputes in the 1670s, I found an odd reference to a murder. While the record does not connect the murder to the decades long strife between the two colonies, its placement suggests that Connecticut officials saw a connection. My research has revealed fighting, arrests, brawls, and vandalism all along the border between the colonies in the 1660s and 1670s, so this would fit in. Below find my transcription.


Naraganset: 11 : or 12: day of July : 1670

A sad accident befallen the Towne of Wickford in Coneticut Colynie

and upon that account, Mr Samuell Cedwey Constable of that Towne

called as many of the people together as he could get to behold it

where is to say, a man murthered to say walter house and as we all

heare by 1 Thomas flounders and the maner of the murther was[?]

this, there was a hole strucke in the fore parte of his head and several

other bruses, one upon his left arme, another bruse upon his backe

where wee judge to be the cause of his death being seen and view

=ed by us whose names are under written with the constable by

these witneses stood by and many others, that saw this

sad specttaclcle, but not owne them selves In this



John Cole, Robert Greene, Thomas Well, Ambros Leery, John Crabtree, Report of a Murder, 12 July 1670, Colonial Boundaries Series 1, Vol. 1, #71, Connecticut State Archives, Hartford, CT.

Mining the Land Records for Scandal

When I mention to my colleagues that much of my summer has been spent looking at colonial land records, I generally receive sympathetic looks. While I usually don’t deny it, and even play up their mundanity, the truth is that buried within these endless documents are stories both fascinating and illuminating. In my time scouring land records held at New England state archives, I have found stories of murder, beatings, brawls between townspeople, wrongful incarceration, clever insults, and lewd jokes. Boundary disputes between towns and farms, sometimes only an acre here and there, were the flash point for all of these conflicts. The disputants also generated a great volume of maps ranging from the crude to the detailed. In this post I am going to show one example, perhaps one of the more dramatic, that distills all of this controversy and violence into one bizarre disagreement.

Sometime around 1651, the Connecticut government gave five soldiers, who had served under John Mason in the Pequot War, land near Niantic for their service. Both Lyme and New London later claimed this land in 1671, even though a 1668 agreement specified that the bounds between the two towns were to be a tree that “Groweth upon the soldiers land at the head of niantick Bay,” marked with an S and an R. Despite this, tension rapidly intensified over who claimed Black Point, and one day in the fall colonists from Lyme decided to perambulate the land they believed to be rightfully theirs. In what may have been a planned “coincidence” that would not be out of place in West Side Story, colonists from New London had the same idea at the same time. Participants disputed what happened next when brought before the Connecticut Court, but they agreed each side challenged the other to show what authority they came under, and after a warrant was served by a constable from Lyme, the situation went sour.

A map affiliated with the land disputes, Connecticut State Archives, Towns & Lands, Ser. 1, Vol 1, document #112

One testimonial from a participant claimed that a man from New London shouted at the constable, “I charge you to keep the kings peace,” and then struck the nearest person from Lyme. Other accounts claimed that the patriarch of the influential Griswold family struck the first blow. A particularly detailed account described the men from New London responding to the constable’s warrant by saying “we care not a fart for your paper you may keep it to wipe your breech,” and then began to aggressively mow the grass near the Lyme men. It was at this time that the constable threw a punch. From here, a Lyme man, James Baldwin, pulled out a cudgel to hit people with, and another man seized “ a great pitchfork” and “struck down Richard Smith for dead.” At this point the brawl ended, but the conflict continued in courts.

This story, certainly exciting, raises a few interesting issues. Most obviously, it highlights the lengths to which English colonists were willing to go for small amounts of land that they hoped to acquire in future divisions. It also is an interesting case study in how historians should approach the confused and fraught account of a chaotic moment. For me, the chaos itself is what is so intriguing, but there are other conclusions to be drawn from this story. In investigating the brawl, the Connecticut General Court collected previous acts, agreements between the two towns, maps, testimony about running of bounds, and more. The conflict and its paper-trail provide a story of the workings of colonial government, the diplomacy needed for towns to coexist, and the nature of the colonial archive. It is also worth noting that the disputes between the two towns took place on land adjacent to indigenous Niantic settlements and a Niantic “fort.” Despite this third party in the conflict over the land, most of the records lie silent about the source of the original deed. The land records, while certainly dry at times, are not without merit or gems.

If you would like to see the full citations and bibliography, please e-mail me at

Historical Shapefiles for all of your mapping needs

Recently, while browsing Lincoln Mullen’s website for advice on certain mapping software, I came across the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. This resource is fantastic! Not only does it contain detailed files with the county and state borders from the early colonial period to 2010, but it also has incredible documentation on where it found the information of those borders. These long chronological lists of changes to the borders are complete with full citations. Anyone planning to either build a base map with historical boundaries or to examine how those boundaries changed over time will have a much easier time using this resource.

Where to Find My Guest Post on Getting Started on Maps

If you head over to the Humanities Institute’s Digital Humanities and Media Studies page, you can find my blog post A Crash Course on Digital Mapping for the Moderately Technologically Savvy. The covers what mapping website or program might be best for your needs, and provides brief introductions to Carto, Google Maps, Neatline, and QGIS. It has plenty of links, so hopefully it will provide anyone interested with a solid starting point on digital mapping.

I have some future posts on mapping and geography planned that I hope to post as guest blogs. The most immediate plan is to discuss the deep methodological problem that using contemporary geographic standards posses. Should we really be naturalizing ideas of absolute space with our maps at the same time we challenge them in our writing?

Another Day Another Mapping Program: Google Fusion Tables

The most recent mapping software I experimented with was Google Fusion Tables. While still an experimental project, Fusion Tables is meant to make visualization of tables easy. In fact, if you have columns titled “latitude” and “longitude,” it will automatically provide you with a map. Even if you don’t have those columns, it will try to reference your data from any location information it can find (addresses or town names).

How useful is this program though? For a quick and simple visualization it seems fine, but I think its full potential lies in combination with Google Maps API. Without combining this on your website with JavasScript and the API, the customization and functionality of the maps is limited. Their are only a few options for icons, and it appears to be impossible to classify non-numerical data at this point. Hopefully this will be changed in the future, but for now I would recommend people with more complex mapping desires and limited programming skills to hold off. You can see an example of a map I made with it on the front page or below. It only took me a few minutes to put together.

English Towns During King Philip’s War