Though the Salem Witch Trials are more famous, many New England colonies had their own shameful witch trials. Connecticut had the first in 1647. In all, Connecticut had 43 witch trials with 16 executions (being killed for committing a crime). Here, we'll focus on those in Wethersfield since this is the setting for the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
In the book, the "witch," Hannah, is a Quaker, and while it is true that being a Quaker meant you were often persecuted like Hannah is, by being branded and chased out of town, they usually weren't labeled witches just for being a Quaker.
In the 1600s, it was believed that a witch had made a deal with the devil which gave them supernatural powers like being able to make people sick or bring storms. This was a time when science was lacking. There were no hospitals, no police force, and no army. People didn't know germs existed or how storms developed. What people don't understand, they often fear and there was much to fear in Colonial America. As Chris Pagliuco states in his article Wethersfield's Witch Trials:
They could lose their sheep and other farm animals to wolf and bear attacks. The Connecticut River could flood at any time, wiping out crops. Epidemics visited the region in 1647 and 1648, killing dozens of townspeople in an already small and unstable population. The local Native Americans were equally dangerous. The Pequot War began with a "massacre" in Wethersfield in 1637; nine wethersfield residents were killed, two captured, and the entire population horrified. (Some wethersfield residents got their revenge weeks later with the slaughter of hundreds at the Pequot Massacre in Mystic.)
Two women are mentioned in The Witch of Blackbird Pond who were real people living in Wethersfield during the 1600s. Mary Johnson was a house servant who had been convicted (found guilty) of stealing in Hartford, Connecticut and then again in Wethersfield. People were already suspicious of those who were convicted of a crime, like stealing. People believed the devil walked around among them causing weak people to do bad things. If you stole something, you probably signed a deal with the devil (making you a witch).
Mary Johnson is notable because she is the first person in North America to confess to witchcraft. While she was being whipped for stealing, she not only confessed to witchcraft, but even claimed to have killed. She was never put on trial for murder, however, so it seems the authorities didn't believe that confession. They did believe her confession of witchcraft, however, and she was executed in 1650.
Often, people who were accused of witchcraft were those who were different, or those who challenged the typical way things were done. When she was younger, Katherine Harrison was a servant in Hartford. It was believed that the classes shouldn't mix, so the rich (one "class" of society) should never marry someone from the "lower classes," like servants. But, Harrison married a successful Wethersfield farmer who had lots of land, making her wealthy.
When Harrison's husband died, people began accusing her of witchcraft within months, even though she had never been accused before. People didn't like the idea of her being able to move from the servant "class" to the rich "class," so perhaps witchcraft enabled her to do it. The townspeople looked at anything that went wrong or was suspicious as her fault. Connecticut state historian Walter Woodward explains, "If a child died unexpectedly, if there [was] a drought or if cheese rotted unusually fast, they believed it to be the work of the devil. The real test of being a witch was making a pact with the devil. They all believed in magic of some sort, but to cooperate with the devil was unacceptable. …You were considered extremely dangerous." One neighbor woman even accused Harrison of witchcraft because she spun "so great a quantity of fine linen yarn… [that she]…did never know nor hear of any other woman that could spin so much." Even though this sounds more like jealousy than witchcraft, Harrison was found guilty of witchcraft in 1669.
In other capital cases (ones in which someone could be executed), there had to be two witnesses, but in witch trials, those two witnesses could have "seen" two different instances of witchcraft. So, for example, one person could claim Katherine Harrison was a witch because their child got sick after she visited them and someone else could claim she was a witch because their goat died after she walked past it and mumbled.
Reverend Bulkeley had trained in medicine by John Winthrop Jr. and was also skeptical that so much witchcraft was going on in Connecticut towns. He used the questions Winthrop provided for them, which asked about the evidence in the case. Because there were not two witnesses to any one claim about Harrison's witchcraft, her conviction was overturned (she was found to be not guilty). This changed the standard for judging whether someone was a witch and from this time forward no other person was executed for being a witch in Connecticut.
Though Katherine Harrison was found to be not guilty, she couldn't live in peace in Wethersfield any longer and moved to New York.
Why were thanksgiving days celebrated in Puritan America?
In England, days of thanks were often declared by the church at various times throughout the year as days to fast (not eat), pray, and give thanks. These "thanks giving" days were declared for many reasons including a good harvest or winning a battle. The Pilgrims had endured a brutal year so they held a three day feast. They never called it a "Thanksgiving" and there is no proof that they invited the Wampanoag to attend. Some historians say they just showed up and joined in the festivities. There is very little documentation of the the feast (and many claim this wasn't the first Thanksgiving feast), but one Pilgrim, Edward Winslow, wrote home to England about it:
“And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) by Jennie A. Brownscombe. Wikimedia Commons, this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or fewer. *NOTE: most of the Native People in this painting have feathers in their hair or even full feathered headdresses. The Wampanoag did not wear these. This was common among the Natives in the plains, but not those living along the east coast. Native people have often been lumped into one image by white Americans of modern times, but this is ridiculous. There was once at least 600 different Native Nations in what is now the United States.
The "thanksgiving" that followed
What we don't often hear about, however, is that in 1637, 16 years after the (supposedly) first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims killed 500 Pequot men, women, and children in a bloody and gruesome attack known as the Mystic Massacre. Writing about the slaughter, William Bradford, the governor of Massachusetts, said that "from that day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots" and for "the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won."
This was the first time an official Thanksgiving Day was declared and celebrating it every year was proposed. This is hardly the idea of a peaceful coming together of Native People and Pilgrims that we think about each November when we sit down to eat.
The massacre was the culmination of what was known as the Pequot Wars, though "war" isn't a very appropriate label since the Puritans had guns and the Pequot people did not. There were white people who were killed in the back and forth fighting leading up to the Pequot Wars including six men and three women in Wethersfield, Connecticut in April, 1637, but the Puritans killed and enslaved hundreds by the end of the Pequot Wars (at least 500 were killed in the Mystic Massacre alone).
Why all the fighting?
The Native People were seeing more and more Puritans moving into their lands and much of the disagreement between the Natives and the newcomers was about control of those lands for hunting, trapping, and farming.
There had been fighting back and forth for many years with kidnappings and killings. The English were particularly mindful of the attacks of 1622 when about 350 colonists were killed. This occurred after much trading back and forth between the Native People and the colonists. Instead of the Native People being allowed to decide whether or not they wanted to trade. The colonists began demanding food and when the Native People would not, they burned their fields and sometimes, their villages. The Native population had enough of this and attacked.
Years later, in the case of the Mystic Massacre, one side or the other would suspect a specific group was guilty—the Native People thought the English were guilty when it was the Dutch, or the English would think the Pequots were guilty when it was the Manisses (each a different Native Nation). Each would attack and sometimes kill a person from the wrong group. Sometimes the attacks were on the right group, but this kept happening, back and forth, until a trader named John Oldham was found murdered.
The English felt they could not let the murder go unpunished, though they only assumed it was the Pequots who did it. They attacked various Native Nations including the Pequots, Niantics, and the Narragansetts. The Pequot worked to form alliances with several Native Nations and fought back in raids—the Pequot Raids. They battled the English for 11 months despite having no guns, but they were defeated in the Fairfield Swamp Fight about a month after the Mystic Massacre. Many of the Pequot who survived the "war" were sold off as enslaved people.
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“The First Thanksgiving.” National Geographic Kids, National Geographic Society, 10 Oct. 2019, kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/history/first-thanksgiving/.
Fixico, Donald L. “When Native Americans Were Slaughtered in the Name of 'Civilization'.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2 Mar. 2018, www.history.com/news/native-americans-genocide-united-states.
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Koyfman, Steph. “What Was, And What Is: Native American Languages In The US.” Babbel Magazine, Lesson Nine GmbH, 4 Oct. 2017, www.babbel.com/en/magazine/native-american-languages-in-the-us.
McBride, Kevin. “Pequot War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Apr. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/Pequot-War.
Menjivar, Jackie. “Truthsgiving: The True History of Thanksgiving.” DoSomething.org, www.dosomething.org/us/articles/truthsgiving-the-true-history-of-thanksgiving?utm_source=email_wyd&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=wyd_2019_11_26.
“Plimoth Plantation.” Thanksgiving History | Plimoth Plantation, www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/thanksgiving/thanksgiving-history.
Schilling, Vincent. “6 Thanksgiving Myths and the Wampanoag Side of the Story.” IndianCountryToday.com, Indian Country Today, 14 Nov. 2017, indiancountrytoday.com/archive/6-thanksgiving-myths-and-the-wampanoag-side-of-the-story-roJhk2s_AkW9pkyjONXr-w.
Stensrud, Rockwell. “What's the Difference between a Pilgrim and a Puritan?” Newsweek, 26 Nov. 2015, www.newsweek.com/whats-difference-between-pilgrim-and-puritan-397974.
I often struggle to find websites with thorough explanations in simple language to help kids understand historical events or scientific concepts, so I decided to create some of my own!