Acculturation of Native Americans in Southern New England
by Jim Trocchi

With the settlement of Europeans in southern New England from 1620 forward, how did the Indians adapt to this migration from Europe and its contrasting society? There are many historical records by early Europeans that document this information and they give us an idea of what this transitional period was like.


Possibly the first European effect the Indians encountered was their diseases. It is said that smallpox or yellow fever are what plagued and killed large numbers of Natives soon after European contact. Some clergy believed that the reason for the plague was to kill off the Indians and make room for the White Man. “…[A]nd it hath been generally observed, that where the English come to settle, a Devine Hand makes way for them, by removing or cutting off the Indians, either by wars one with the other, or by some raging mortal Disease” (Denton 1670:7).

Josselyn (1675) contends that smallpox was a disease originating in the Americas since it was unknown in Europe before Columbus discovered the New World. “So to the West-Indies the Pox, but this doth not exclude other Diseases. In New England the Indians are afflicted with pestilent Fevers, Plague, Black-pox, Consumption of the Lungs, Fallingsickness, Kings-evil, and a Disease called by the Spaniard the Plague in the back, with us Emphysema...” (Josselyn 1675:299).

When the Europeans first settled in Connecticut, great numbers of Indians died the first year as told by the following story:

The Dutch were rivals with the English in fur trade, they therefore sent emissaries up the river, 25-30 miles above Windsor to secure trade with those Indians. Before winter came, 950 of 1000 Indians living west of Springfield died of smallpox. The Dutch made it back to the Plymouth trading post where they were received. A few weeks later the Indians living near there died of smallpox, including their sachem, Nattawanut (Howard 1935:10).

Indians of Windsor in 1633-34 were dying of smallpox, as documented by Bradford. Their chief, named Nattawanut or Attawanott, was quite possibly one of the victims (Stiles 1859:16).


One product of the European culture that was very detrimental to Native society was the partaking in alcohol beverages.

They are great lovers of strong drink, yet do not care for drinking, unless they have enough to make themselves drunk; and if there be so many in their company, that there is not sufficient to make them all drunk, they usually select so many of their company, proportionable to the quantity of drink, and the rest must be spectators. And if any one chance to be drunk before he hath finish his proportion, (which is ordinarily a quart of brandy, rum or strong waters) the rest will pour the rest of his part down his throat (Denton 1670:7).

After the Contact Period, they grew apples and made cider to obtain their alcohol beverage.

Ironically, Europeans brought the knowledge of Christianity to the Indians, but at the same time taught them Christian sin. Josselyn writes that the Indians loved hard liquor so much that they would part with all they own for it. “Thus of bringing of them the knowledge of Christianity, we have taught them to commit the beastly and crying sins of our Nation, for a little profit” (Josselyn 1675:304).

Thus, it is said that drinking and even swearing were unknown to them before the arrival of the Europeans.

[F]irst taught by the example of some of our English who to unclothe them of their beaver coat clad them with infection of swearing and drinking, which was never in fashion with them before, it being contrary to their nature to guzzle down strong drink or use so much as to sip of strong-waters until our bestial example and dishonest incitation hath too much broughtto them (Wood 1634:79).


Indians were impressed by European technology upon its first arrival. This led to their trading beaver pelts for that technology.

Indians supposedly approached Capt. John Smith’s ship in 1614 when it came into Massachusetts Bay. They approached it in their canoes and fired their arrows at it, in response the English fired a piece of ordinance which the Indians feared causing them to go ashore. The English came ashore to trade for beaver with copper kettles. The Indians were impressed by the white mans kettles and technology (Johnson 1654:39-41).

Another common trade item was Indian corn. A Connecticut Court record of April 26, 1636 shows that a Henry Stiles of Dorchester (modern Windsor) traded a gun to Indians for corn (Stiles 1859:30-31).

Major trade items were blankets, clothing, metal utensils, tools and guns. For example, a common trade item in land deeds and general trade was “trucking” or “trading” cloth. They used it not only for bedding but for making clothing such as mantles (Josselyn 1675:297).

Natives also traded for guns, which were largely illegal for the English to sell, but it was common for the French and Dutch to sell them. “But the French in the East, and the Dutch in the South, sell them guns, powder and shot” (Lechford 1642:104).

The Indians bought guns not only for their defense but also for hunting. They bought guns to hunt deer and fowl (Winthrop 1630-49:80). Here in Connecticut there is a record of a John Colt, an Englishman, of Windsor who was shot by an Indian (Stiles 1859:196)


Before the arrival of Europeans, wampum was made only by the Narragansetts and Pequots (Bradford 1908:235-236). After the Europeans’ arrival it was made by all Indians. The Indians made the decorative beads called wampum out of shell. With the coming of the English this wampum became legal currency. “Wampum became at a later period a legal tender among the colonists, the value of which was from time to time fixed by law” (Bradford 1908:235).


With the dominance of the White Man the Indians eventually were under the control of their laws. The following laws were incorporated by the Massachusetts Bay Colony concerning Indians:

1) Declare the Indian title to land.
2) The civil Indian to have land granted for towns.
3) Indians not to be dispossessed of what lands they have subdued, or from fishing places.
4) None to buy land from the Indians without license of the court.
5) All strong liquors prohibited to be sold or given to Indians unless for sickness by permission.
6) Powwows, or wizards or witches, prohibited upon penalty.
7) Orders to restrain and prevent drunkenness
(Gookin 1674:38).

The following is a town act from Windsor, Connecticut to control the “nuisances” made by the Indians. “At this time towns people were much annoyed by Indians strolling up and down in the towns, in the night season to by liquors. The court therefore decreed that any Indian found walking the streets, after nightfall, should be fined 20 shillings (15s to the public treasury, and 5s to the informer) Whipt with ‘six stripes at least’” (Stiles 1859:155).

The English in Massachusetts Bay wished to control the Indians and obtain their guns but could not. “...[A]nd restored the Indians all their arms we had taken from them: for although we saw it was very dangerous to us, that they should have guns, yet we saw not in justice how we could take them away, seeing they came lawfully by them, (by trade with the French and Dutch for the most part,)…” (Winthrop 1630-49:80).

But here in Connecticut the courts ruled it illegal to sell or trade guns to the Indians.

A Corte held at Newtown (Hartford) 26 Apr. 1636. It was now complained yt Henry Stiles or some of the servants had traded a peece wth the Indians for Corne. It is ordered yt the saide Henry Stiles shall, between & the next Corte, regaine the said peece from the saide Indians in a fair & legall waye, or els this Corte will take into further consideration.

It is ordered yt henceforth none yt are within the Jurisdiction of this Corte, shall trade wth the natives or Indians any peece or pistoll or gunn or powder or shott, vnder such heavie penalty as vppon such misdemeanor the Corte shall thinke meete.
(Colonial Records of Connecticut 1636-1665).


Indian women were affected by the English culture in the way they were treated by their spouses. Wood (1634:115) mentions that since the English arrival, the Indian women seek to be treated by Indian men in the manner that the English men treat their women. They also drifted away from polygamy to monogamy. “An Indian may have two wives or more if he please; but is not so much in use as it was since the English came amongst them: they being ready in some measure to imitate the English in things both good and bad” (Denton 1670:11).


The Indians were reluctant to accept the White Mans’ religion for several reasons. “Sachems felt that teaching of the white mans religion would throw down their heathenous idols and the sachems tyrannical monarchy, therefore they out in force for their people not to attend the ministry of the word God” (Gookin 1792:209). The main design of the English was to bring Indians their knowledge of God and suppress sins of drunkenness, idolatry, powwowing or witchcraft, whoredom, and murder (Gookin 1792:192).

Some Natives eventually submitted to Christianity because they felt their life improved because of God.

They acknowledge the power of the Englishman’s God, as they call him because they could never yet have power by their conjurations to damnify the English either in body or goods; and besides, they say he is a good God that sends them so many good things, so much corn, so many cattle, temperate rains, fair seasons, which they likewise are the better for since the arrival of the English, the times and seasons being much altered in seven or eight years, freer from lightning and thunder, long droughts, sudden and tempestuous dashes of rain, and lamentable cold winters
(Wood 1634:102).

In Massachusetts, John Elliot learned the Indian language to help Natives learn the knowledge of God by producing the book English Grammar Begun. “...[T]he reverend Mr. Eliot hath been more than ordinary laborious to study their language, instructing them in their wigwams, and Catechism their children” (Johnson 1654:264).

Some Indians later began to teach Christianity. A well known Indian from Connecticut who preached was Wequash Cook.

One Wequash Cook, an Indian, living about Connecticut river’s mouth, and keeping much at Saybrook with Mr. Fenwick, attained to good knowledge of the things of God and salvation by Christ, so as he became a preacher to other Indians, and labored much to convert them, but without any effect, for within a short time he fell sick, not without suspicion of poison from them, and died very comfortable
(Winthrop 1908:69).


It is in the early colonial primary and secondary written records that we get an abundance of information about the clash of Native American and European cultures. Of course, these records may be biased toward the European point of view. There is no question that this is always a concern of the researcher. Also, this article doesn’t include any archaeological or oral tradition evidence, but keep in mind both of these processes can be used in association with the written record. Therefore, as you can see from the records cited in this article, there is much valuable and interesting information about what it was like for Native Americans here in southern New England to adjust to the wave of Europeans invading their environment. Many chose to move west, getting temporary relief, but for those who stayed their way of life would be changed.


  • Bradford, William. 1620-1647 History of Plymouth Plantation. Edited by S.E. Morrison, 1908 edition.
  • Colonial Records of Connecticut 1636-1665.
  • Denton, Daniel. 1670 A Brief Description of New York. University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor, 1966.
  • Gookin, Daniel. 1674 Historical Collections of the Indians of New England. Arno Press, New York.
  • Howard, Daniel. A New History of Old Windsor, Connecticut. The Journal Press, Windsor Locks, CT: 1935.
  • Johnson, Edward. 1654 Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence 1628-1651. Edited by J. Franklin Jameson, PhD, LLD, Barnes and Noble Inc.,
    NY: 1967.
  • Josselyn, John. 1675 An Account of Two Voyages to N.E. Mass. Historical Collection ser.3 v.3 p.211-396. Cambridge: 1833.
  • Lechford, Thomas. 1642 News from New England.
  • Stiles, Henry R. M.D. The History of Ancient Windsor, CT. Charles B. Norton, NY: 1859.
  • Winthrop's Journal Vol. I, II: History of New England 1630-1649. Edited by James Kendall Hosmer, LLD. Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY: 1908.
  • Wood, William. 1634 New England Prospect. Edited by Alden T. Vaughan, UMass Press, Amherst: 1977.