Book Review

Pulsipher, Jenny. Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in
Colonial New England
. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Jenny Pulsipher’s book Subjects unto the Same King primarily unravels the power dynamics and relationships of Puritan English immigrants to New England in the Seventeenth Century. Framing her work within the wider context of the Early Modern Atlantic world, she investigates the multifaceted conflicts which arose in New England, including those between Massachusetts Bay and the local American Indian populations, other New England colonies, rival European powers, and the English crown. She argues against what she conceives as a pervasive narrative about colonial New England, the idea of two monolithic cultures battling against each other in a clash of civilizations. Instead, she presents the historical events as part of a multifaceted wider trans-Atlantic power struggle with many competing sides and coalitions. This Atlantic power struggle was a defining aspect of Puritan migration across both sides of the ocean, shaping patterns of immigration and changing life in New England itself dramatically.
One of Pulsipher’s primary themes concerns the relationships between Indians and English in New England. She points out the evolution in power dynamics between Indians and English over time, and how Englishmen and Indians perceived this relationship very differently at times. She starts with the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, noting that the Plymouth colonists addressed him as “‘friend’ and ‘ally’ of King James, a signal to the Indians that their relationship with the English was one of equality,” (p. 18). As time progressed, the idea of Indians as subjects to King James would acquire a certain obscurity as to whether Indians were equal subjects to King James or inferior subjects under the rule of the English colonists. In 1644, for instance, the Narragansett appealed directly to the English crown rather than to Massachusetts: “The sachems’ submission to Charles I was the first recorded example of Indian appeal to royal authority in New England, but it would by no means be the last,” (p. 32). This divergence in interpretations would later become such that “in 1671, when Metacom, or Philip, defied the authority of the United Colonies, he declared that he ‘would not treat except his Brother King Charles of England were there,’” (p. 20). By the 1670s there was no doubt on the English side as to this relationship: “The English saw the Indians as subjects- subordinates- and could not allow them to act independently…Indians, believing themselves friends and allies, hence equals to the English, were alarmed at being treated like inferiors,” (p. 117). The complexities of Indian relationships with the Puritan Englishmen often saw English and Indian fighting on the same side in various conflicts. By the end of the 17th Century, the native population of New England greatly reduced and their sovereignty was all but gone, with the great exception of the Wabanakis, who were able to use the French to “play off against the English” and vice versa, as well as “uniting their interests with other Indian peoples” and maintain autonomy in Maine for much longer than other tribes (p. 270).
Another theme Pulsipher takes on is the power struggle between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other European (including English) colonies and the English crown. Rather than being isolated from events across the Atlantic, the Puritan English were dramatically affected by political currents across the ocean. The Spanish writer Las Casas, who in the Anglosphere would inadvertently perpetuate the Black Legend, influenced the initial policies of Puritan colonists in Plymouth and Massachusetts (p. 17). The effects of the English Civil War on the colonies were also monumental, with the parliamentary government of Oliver Cromwell being much friendlier to the interests of Massachusetts in particular, and many Massachusetts men taking part in the conflict in England on behalf of Parliament, demonstrating the two-sided nature of migration (p. 14). Desperate to maintain authority in the region and enforce the supremacy of its charter, Massachusetts Bay often held a contentious relationship with the crown, which was greatly exploited by competing colonies such as Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine (p. 39-40). Within the colonies, there was a great deal of conflict among religious groups. During the first bloody year of the King Philip’s War, “Quakers, particularly, made hay of the Puritans’ the Quakers, and to many observing New England from across the Atlantic, the Quaker executions of a decade earlier were the most grievous blot on the Massachusetts record,” (p. 185). Quakers were hardly alone in their resentment of and lack of sympathy for Massachusetts Puritans during the King Philip’s War, with Governor Berkeley of Virginia believing the bloodshed was God’s punishment on the colony as “undoubtedly the New England men were as guilty of the late Blessed King’s murder by their Council’s Emissaries and wishes as any that most apparently acted on it,” (p. 193). Massachusetts Puritans similarly reacted to continuing violence in Maine, the citizens of whom they had reason to resent, a few years later: “[they] saw the Indians attacks on Maine’s English, who had thrown off both civil and religious government, as just,” (p. 209).
While Pulsipher skillfully nuances the power conflicts in colonial New England, there are a few factors which should be more thoroughly explored. In the concluding chapters of the book, she describes in detail the final submission of the Bay Colony to royal authority in 1691 following the Glorious Revolution which had deposed James II. She describes how the “younger generation turned away from local authorities who had been in power,” and emphasizes by this time the “willingness of Massachusetts’s new leaders to embrace royal government,” this embrace coming with “a growing sense of religious tolerance,” (p. 264). What she does not explain is why precisely attitudes in Massachusetts became more open towards religious tolerance, particularly given the severity of the rivalry between Quakers, Baptists and other groups and Puritans that had so characterized the region just a few years before. This is hardly an obvious transformation and it would beneficial to the field to further analyse when and how these attitudes changed and who cause these changes, which did not apply to everyone. The work also discusses the role of the Caribbean in trade with New England, but fails to give due mention to the African slave trade and the role of African slavery in colonial New England, which did exist (p. 268).
Pulsipher’s work in Colonial New England is significant in that it restores an often-missing complexity to the Seventeenth Century Atlantic world, re-evaluating differing conceptions of power dynamics and bearing witness to the diversity of motivations which would give rise to strategic alliances between competing polities and put others at odds. This is of particular importance to the history of Puritan migration to New England, evoking the tense and varied relationship between these immigrants and their mother country, issues of sovereignty for themselves and the people whom they asserted themselves over, and intercolonial conflicts within North America. Future work in this field would benefit from taking on Pulsipher’s analysis of issues of authority, while possibly exploring further interactions of power such as economic leverage and the Atlantic slave trade.