Burning Question

Further proof that travel broadens the mind.

What does it take to tie a person to a post, pile firewood around, and then set it ablaze? Our ancestors did it regularly. Joan of Arc was burned in 1431. The Catholic Church chose burning as its official execution method because—no joke—it avoided the shedding of blood.

In England, burning remained a judicial tool until 1790. In America, it has been mostly the work of racist mobs. As late as 1916, a black killer was castrated and hung over a bonfire in Texas.

Native Americans also did it, though whites called them savages for doing so. One of their victims happened to be my ninth great-grandfather.

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In 1677, John Plympton was grabbed from his house by Algonquin Indians, who marched him and 20 others (mostly women and children) hundreds of miles to Canada, threatening death and torture all the way. Amazingly, Plympton passed up opportunities to escape. It “would only have brought on the slaughter of the others, with our own destruction,” Plympton told fellow captive Quentin Stockwell. “I could not consent to it.”

But context is everything. Not long ago, I spent a long weekend at Deerfield, Mass., where Plympton had lived, and came away with some understanding—if not approval—of his killers.

Once frontier, Deerfield is now an outdoor museum whose mile-long main street is lined with houses dating to 1730. For visitors, there’s a historical library and museum, plus tours and demonstrations. Like Williamsburg, Deerfield was rescued from developers in the early 20th century. But Williamsburg’s main benefactor was oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Deerfield’s savior was Henry Flynt, a lawyer who was comfortably well-off, but no Rockefeller. From my perspective, the difference is to Deerfield’s benefit.

Deerfield’s interpretation is almost wholly focused on the year 1704, when a force of 300 French and Indians mounted the snow-drifted stockade, killed 56 town residents and kidnapped another 112. That event dominates the town’s history in the way 1776 defines Philadelphia. The location of the 1704 stockade is marked with stones, and a centerpiece artifact is the hatchet-marked door of the Sheldon house, where one family fought off the attackers.

I went to Deerfield for a “descendants reunion.” My wife had taken our daughters to a wedding in Virginia, so I had three undistracted days with a middle-aged crowd that included many distant cousins. We compared family trees, examined artifacts and heard the Native American perspective from Algonquin scholar Marge Bruchac, who clearly believed that the first white settlers had cheated the local Pocumtuck tribe of its land. I found the site of Plympton’s house, occupied by an 1872 cottage.

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At dinner one night, I met Mary Hunt, a descendant of Benjamin Waite, who lived in nearby Hatfield and whose wife and children were kidnapped with Plympton. Waite was among the first to respond to the raid. “Ben didn’t know which Indians were responsible,” said Hunt. “His first thought was that they were Mohawk. By the time he found that wasn’t the case, the raiding party was long gone.”

My revelation came on the last day. At the library, I found a 19th-century transcript of a 1676 letter Plympton had written to officials at Boston. A veteran of militia companies at Boston and Medfield, Plympton had led a patrol that encountered five Indians near Hatfield in the waning days of King Philip’s War. They captured two and, wrote Plympton, “now humbly present [them] to your Honors for condemnation, and liberty to dispose of and distribute the [reward] among our fellow soldiers.”

Standard practice was to sell captured Indians into slavery in the Caribbean, or kill them outright. I have no information on Plympton’s captives, but it’s reasonable to conclude that they were members of the local Pocumtuck tribe, a subset of the Algonquins who grabbed him the following year.

“It was rather unusual among Algonquins to kill captives, since they were quite valuable to be ransomed, sold to the French or potentially adopted,” said Bruchac. “So, the burning of Plympton does seem to signal retribution.”

It’s not proof, but it allowed me to see my ancestor’s death in a different light. Put yourself in the Indians’ place. Your husband or brother or son has disappeared forever and the leader of the group that took him is tied to a nearby post. I might be tempted, too.

Mark E. Dixon writes Main Line Today’s popular history column, Retrospect. He lives in Wayne.


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