Chickwallop and the Beast

Indian Responses to European Animals in Early New England

Virginia DeJohn Anderson

One winter’s day in 1635 or 1636, a band of Norwottuck Indians noticed a strange creature floundering in deep snow near the Connecticut River. Advancing cautiously, they came upon a small, horned animal, which they later described as “poor and scarce able to rise.” They had never seen anything like it before. Unsure of what to do next, they traveled back to their sachem, Chickwallop, and a few days later he accompanied them to view the beast for himself. The men lifted the animal up, but it quickly collapsed under its own weight. Soon it “died of itself with hunger and cold,” leaving the Indians thoroughly puzzled. Where had this creature come from? Were there more of them nearby?’1

Had an Englishman been present to witness this encounter between the Norwottucks and the strange beast, he might well have laughed at the Indians’ bewilderment, for the animal would have been utterly familiar to him. The creature was nothing more than a young cow that had wandered away from one of the new English settlements in the Connecticut Valley. But the Norwottucks’ confusion was perfectly understandable: they had never seen a cow, and there was no colonist at the scene to explain that it was an English animal. Never before had they come across a creature that none of them recognized. The Indians’ careful examination of the beast suggested much curiosity on their part, yet their decision to fetch Chickwallop also testified to their concern and, perhaps, fear.

The first and only description of this incident appeared more than thirty years after the fact—in March 1669—in a scant few lines in a letter from one Englishman to another. It may seem to deserve the obscurity in which it has hidden for well over three hundred years. But as an exceedingly rare account of a first encounter between Indians and an Old World animal, it deserves close attention. We now know that the movement of European livestock across the Atlantic was no less momentous for the future of America than that of the European peoples who brought them. For the most part, however, examinations of this topic have concentrated on the ecological impact of the imported animals. Even as cattle, swine, horses, and sheep provided food and muscle power for English colonists—and, eventually, for some Indian peoples—they also competed for space with indigenous animals, altered forest composition, compacted the soil, and introduced diseases. In so doing, they threatened Indian subsistence regimes and even, as Jared Diamond has suggested, helped establish European hegemony in the New World.2

Without denying the importance of ecological developments, this essay shifts our attention toward the cultural impact of European animals on native peoples.3 What follows is a case study of the ways in which New England Indians tried to incorporate the new animals into their mental world, and of how, and why, Indian ideas about the creatures changed over time. For, as the story of the Norwottucks and the strange beast demonstrates, European livestock first presented Indians with a conceptual puzzle long before subsistence and ecological problems emerged. Determining how the Indians grappled with that puzzle reveals a great deal about how well they could adapt to new conditions. In the end, however, their inability to pursue their own solutions without interference from the English exposed the uneven balance of power that characterized the process of colonization.


We can never know, of course, exactly what Chickwallop and his men thought that day about the creature they had found. But one way to begin seeking an answer is to investigate what New England Indians thought about the animals with which they were familiar, on the assumption that they would have reasoned by analogy from the creatures they already knew. The task of recovering native ideas about animals is complicated, however, by the fact that Indians may not have conceived of the generic category of “animals” in the same way that the English did—as all non-human creatures capable of sensation and voluntary motion. Colonists like Roger Williams and John Eliot, who made an effort to record native vocabularies, noted that both the Narragansett and the Massachusett languages included a word for “beasts” (penashímwock in Narragansett and puppinashimwog in Massachusett), but this may have connoted—as it does in English—a four-footed mammal as opposed to all non-human creatures.4

Even if Indians did not think of “animals” as a general category, they certainly recognized individual species of animals. Moreover, their conception of those animals’ place in the world differed markedly from the understanding of the colonists. Indians viewed animals as different from people, but not necessarily subordinate to them. When Indians spoke of animals, they employed grammatical constructions that implied that animals were specially linked to people and the spiritual world. All words in the Massachusett language that referred to humans, spirits, or animals belonged to the category of animate nouns. In the case of plants, however, only certain nouns (such as those for “cedar tree” or “pine tree”) were animate, which indicates that the quality of being alive did not, at least in a grammatical sense, place plants in the same grouping as people and animals. Since other Eastern Algonquian languages, including Narragansett and Mohegan-Pequot, shared common features with Massachusett, they probably included a similar grammatical characteristic.5 Such linguistic evidence is at best only suggestive, but it accords with other information that reveals a distinctive native understanding of animals as significant beings with spiritual connections.

English colonists recognized that Indian ideas about the nature of human-animal relations differed from their own, but even the most sympathetic commentators struggled to explain what they observed. Some of them, acknowledging the spiritual component of those relations, simply asserted that Indians believed that animals were gods. Not long after he arrived in Rhode Island, for instance, Roger Williams reported that the Narragansetts “have plenty of Gods or divine powers: the Sunn, Moone, Fire, Water, Snow, Earth, the Deere, the Beare etc. are divine powers.” The inclusion of celestial and natural phenomena might possibly have made sense to Williams, at least insofar as he could draw analogies from his knowledge of other, more familiar cultures. The Ancients had worshiped nature gods, after all, and even the Puritans considered such things as comets or fires or floods to be providences, or manifestations of divine power (though not powers in and of themselves).6 But animals?

In fact, the evidence was more equivocal than Williams’s statement suggested. In the early 1620s, Wampanoags who told Plymouth colonists about their creator deity Kiehtan (or Cautantowwit) declined to describe him at all. They merely informed Edward Winslow that “[n]ever man saw this Kiehtan; only old men tell them of him.” Culture heroes in New England Indians’ oral traditions—Maushop and his wife Squant in the south and Gluskap in the north—appeared not as animals but as giant humans who shaped the landscape and worked miracles. At the same time, however, Edward Johnson reported in the early 1650s that Indians told him that Hobbamock (or Abbomocho), a deity linked to the underworld, appeared to people in visions and dreams in the shape of a deer, an eagle, a snake—or even, though Johnson’s informants may have been enjoying a joke, “sometimes like a white boy.” And in the same vein, John Josselyn claimed that some Indians in northern New England told him a “story of the Beaver, saying that he was their Father.”7

If animals were perhaps not gods as such, supernatural beings or guardian spirits evidently could assume the shapes of animals at will. Spirits of prey animals appeared in hunters’ dreams on the night before an expedition. One shaman from Martha’s Vineyard admitted to having many animal-shaped guardian spirits, including “Fowls, Fishes, and creeping things.” Spirits might appear in the guise of animals during times of crisis, as in the reported instance during King Philip’s War when—as an Englishman described it—warriors “had a Pawaw when the Devil appeared in the Shape of a Bear walk[in]g on his 2 hind feet.” Indians, who drew no sharp division between natural and supernatural phenomena, easily incorporated such experiences into their mental world in ways that Christian English colonists could not.8

If Indian comments on animals and spirits left many colonists confused, at least one Englishman edged closer to a better understanding of native ideas. After five years’ residence near the Narragansetts, Roger Williams composed A Key into the Language of America in 1643, recording what he had learned about their customs and beliefs. One of his more notable discoveries was the fact that among the Narragansetts there was “a generall Custome . . . at the apprehension of any Excellency in Men, Women, Birds, Beasts, Fish, &c. to cry out Manittóo A God . . . .”9 By distinguishing between animals themselves and the particular quality of “excellency” that indicated manitou, Williams had made an intellectual leap, no longer directly equating beasts with gods. Yet he still struggled to explain in English terms what he had observed. His translation of the word manitou to mean “a god” was at best an awkward attempt to connect an alien idea with Christian sensibilities. “Spirit” might have been a better, though till imprecise, choice, for there is no direct Christian analogue to the concept of Manitou.10

Algonquian peoples, including the Indians of southern New England, generally conceived of manitous as other-than-human beings capable of assuming a variety of physical forms—including animals—and exerting spiritual power in a number of ways. As far as Williams could discern, manitous among the Narragansetts most often took shape as deer, bears, black foxes, and coneys (rabbits). These creatures’ elusiveness seems to have been a marker of their special status. Black foxes—but not red or gray ones—“are Manittóoes” which the Narragansetts “have often seene, but never could take any of them.” Narragansett hunters had to take care in setting their traps “for they say, the Deere (whom they conceive have a Divine power in them) will soone smell and be gone.” And although Williams offered no explanation, Narragansetts may similarly have “conceive[d] there is some Deitie” in rabbits because of their ability to evade humans.11

Indians may also have detected manitou more frequently in animals that were crucial to native subsistence as sources of food and raw materials for tools, clothing, and shelter. For instance, deer and bears—two creatures described by Williams as “divine powers”—figured prominently in the Indian diet. Native peoples who lived in northern regions and subsisted primarily through hunting were especially disposed to perceive spiritual value in animals. Micmacs, Ojibwas, and Crees, among others, believed that benevolent spirits protected game animals.12 Abenakis personalized their relationships with animal manitous by addressing them as grandmother, grandfather, sister, and brother.13 And even though various southern New England peoples, like the Norwottucks, practiced horticulture to a greater extent than their northern neighbors, they too hunted extensively in the autumn and early winter, and this may help account for their perception of spiritual power in their prey.14

But utility to humans was not in itself sufficient to confer spiritual power on animals. There is no evidence that Indians perceived manitou in game birds, such as ducks and geese, or in fish. More to the point, while wampum beads used in ritual ceremonies were held sacred, the shellfish that supplied the raw material for the beads apparently held no particular spiritual significance. And many Algonquian peoples feared two manitous that few, if any, persons had ever seen: a giant horned underwater serpent and a sacred thunderbird that occupied the sky world.15

What colonists found particularly striking were not so much the ways that Indians talked about manitous and animal spirits, but how they acted in accordance with their beliefs. John Josselyn had lived in Massachusetts less than a year when he learned something about local Indians’ regard for the powers of certain animals. One June day in 1639, a group of “Gentlemen” visited Josselyn’s house and proceeded to entertain their host with a strange tale. Not long before, in the harbor at Cape Ann, two Indians traveling in a boat with several English sailors had passed a rock on which “a Sea-Serpent or Snake . . . lay quoiled up like a Cable.” The sailors wanted to shoot the animal, but the Indians “disswaded them, saying, that if he were not kill’d outright, they would be all in danger of their lives.” The Indians may have mistrusted the marksmanship of the Englishmen (they were, after all, in a boat) and worried about how they would evade the thrashings of such a large wounded animal. But if that were the point of the story, it hardly merited retelling, for the foolhardy English sailors would have been the butt of the joke. Josselyn’s guests clearly saw this instead as an example of Indian foolishness. The Indians’ response was represented as all out of proportion to the provocation: the English sailors were not in the least afraid of this snake or serpent. Josselyn did not elaborate on what either he or his guests thought was the cause of the Indians’ reaction, but they may well have concluded that it somehow reflected the Indians’ odd ideas about animal powers. If so, they may have been on the right track. The Indians may have feared offending such an unusual animal’s guardian spirit. It is also possible that they identified the creature as the Great Serpent, which in Algonquian cosmology represented potentially evil powers. Extreme caution around such a dangerous being, then, was the only sensible course.16

According to Roger Williams, Narragansetts exercised similar care in dealing with another creature with special spiritual connections. Although crows fattened themselves in Indian cornfields, “yet scarce will one Native amongst an hundred kil them.” Children were assigned the task of chasing crows away, but not destroying them. Such forbearance stemmed from a “tradition, that the Crow brought them at first an Indian Graine of Corne in one Eare, and an Indian or French Beane in another, from the Great God Kautántouwits field in the Southwest, from whence they hold came all their Corne and Beanes.” Other birds—ducks, geese, swans, cormorants, pigeons—were fair game and Narragansetts killed an “abundance” of them, but the crow’s mythological link to the origins of horticulture protected it from hunters. The crow’s special status may also have reflected the common knowledge that shamans’ familiar spirits often took the form of crows.17

Nowhere is the distinctive relationship between Indians and animals better seen than in hunting rituals. Since manitous, or guardian spirits, could help animals avoid an arrow or a trap, hunters had to address those supernatural protectors and, in effect, receive permission to take game. Algonquians accordingly adopted practices that recognized a reciprocal relationship between hunters and the spirits of their prey. The precise forms these rituals took, let alone their full significance, have been largely obscured by the imperfect descriptions of colonists, who usually saw them as evidence of Indian superstition. But one rare seventeenth-century account of the ritualized treatment of a dead animal suggests something of a lost world rich in symbolic connections between hunters and prey.18

John Josselyn barely hid his distaste when he described the butchering of a moose killed by a party of northern New England Indians, suggesting that it was nothing more than an opportunity for gluttony when native peoples “stuft their paunches” to the limit with meat. In fact, his description of the treatment of the moose bears a remarkably close resemblance to modern-day practices of Cree Indians, who have preserved much of the symbolic context which gave meaning to the way their ancestors killed game and which continues to inform their own exertions. These parallels between past and present practices offer a way of interpreting the seventeenth-century incident that goes beyond Josselyn’s bare description.

Josselyn began by describing “young and lustie” Indian hunters pursuing the moose through deep snow. Once they “tyred him,” the hunters approached the beast “on each side and transpierce[d] him with their Lances.” After it collapsed “like a ruined building,” the men moved in to cut its throat. It was obviously in the hunters’ interest to dispatch such a huge animal quickly, but the severing of the moose’s carotid artery may have been more than purely functional. Like the Cree hunters who similarly kill their prey expeditiously, Josselyn’s Algonquians may have felt an obligation to minimize the animal’s suffering. The Crees believe that prolonging an animal’s death, or inflicting unnecessary cruelty in any way, demonstrates a lack of respect for its guardian spirit that could jeopardize the success of future hunting.19

Once the moose was dead, the Algonquian hunters skinned it and then the women in their hunting party began the heavy work of butchering. First they removed the heart “and from that the bone.” Cree women do not butcher game, but the men who perform the task, like Josselyn’s Indians, start by taking out the heart and a thin layer of fat located across the rib cage, to be brought back to camp as “tokens” of their kill. The Algonquian women then removed the “left foot behind”; among the Crees, the posterior legs of large mammals are considered women’s food and are prized for their marrow. Next, the Algonquian women drew out the leg sinews and cut out the tongue. Cree hunters do likewise, having for centuries considered the tongue a “medicine piece” with sacred connotations. (Josselyn himself, in another context, described smoked moose tongue as “a dish for a Sagamor” or chief.) Only then did the Algonquian women begin removing the meat, in a place where the men “with their snow shoos shovel[ed] the snow away to the bare Earth in a circle.” Modern Crees similarly prepare a clean surface before cutting up game.

Josselyn did not mention how the moose hunters disposed of the animal’s bones, but other seventeenth-century Algonquian hunters considered this activity to be another spiritually charged ritual that had to be performed properly. Indians in the Hudson Valley, according to one observer, “always burn the beaver bones, and never permit their dogs to gnaw the same; alleging that afterwards they will be unlucky in the chase.” Modern Crees also treat bones in a special way—by hanging them in trees, or boiling or burning them—to show respect for the animal’s soul. Treating the bones in a ritually-prescribed way propitiated the guardian spirit that might otherwise withhold game horn even the most skilled hunters.20

Along with tales of animal spirits and observations of hunting rituals, the very appearance of New England native peoples alerted colonists to the Indians’ distinctive relationship with animals. English commentators described in detail how Indians imprinted their skins with animal-shaped images, perhaps seeking to invoke the spiritual power of animals through body decoration. William Wood described Massachusetts Indians who bore “upon their cheeks certain portraitures of beasts, as bears, deers, mooses, wolves, etc.; some of fowls, as of eagles, hawks, etc.” There were other motifs available for personal adornment—Wood indicated that some non-representational designs were also used—but Indians apparently exhibited a distinct preference for animal-shaped images. Many of the specific designs were of creatures commonly identified with manitous and shamanistic spirits, a correspondence that suggests that their decorative significance derived from the spiritual powers associated with these animals. This spiritual connection may explain why the Indians who wore such images intended for them to be indelible. Wood noted that Indians applied animal images not by “a superficial painting but [by] a certain incision, or else a raising of their skin by a small sharp instrument under which they convey a certain kind of black unchangeable ink which makes the desired form apparent and permanent.” These were tattoos, not temporary applications of paint such as might accompany certain rituals or preparations for war, and Indians expected to wear such images for life.21

Algonquian peoples employed animal motifs in the creation of material objects as well. William Wood glimpsed Indians with “pendants in their ears, as forms of birds, beasts, and fishes, carved out of bone, shells, and stone.” Roger Williams described Narragansett tobacco pipes made “both of wood and stone . . . with men or beasts carved” on them. Corroborating these seventeenth-century accounts, archaeologists have unearthed amulets in the shape of birds, and stone fetishes resembling bears and seals. They have found stone pestles topped with animal-shaped effigies and brass spoons—made from fragments of European kettles—decorated with cut-out images of bears. Native peoples also etched pictures of thunderbirds and serpents on rocks. Animal symbolism, then, was important enough to seventeenth-century Algonquians that they surrounded themselves with animal-shaped objects even as they inscribed their very skins with the images of non-human creatures.22

It was precisely because New England Indians perceived spiritual power in animals that the Norwottuck men could not ignore the creature they had found near the Connecticut River or treat it like any other game animal. Did the unusual beast have a manitou, and if so, how should they address it? These concerns doubtless explain why the men returned to their village to fetch Chickwallop, leaving it to him to figure out what to do. The very fact that the animal had been seen in the frozen marsh near the river could only have heightened their apprehension, for they deemed places such as deep woods and swamps to be sacred. These were regions where spiritually significant encounters between humans and other-than-human beings were more likely to occur. William Bradford reported that Wampanoag religious leaders near Plymouth preferred to conduct their “conjurations” in “a dark and dismal swamp” rather than out in the open. The Norwottucks’ forbearance in dealing with the cow surely stemmed from the animal’s very strangeness, but it may also have reflected their concern that they did not know the right way to treat it. Rather than do the wrong thing and invite retaliation from its guardian spirit, they did nothing at all.23

If the Norwottucks’ understanding of animals as spiritually powerful creatures at first governed their approach to the cow, this response would be tested in the coming years. Encounters with cows and other English livestock soon became commonplace as the numbers of such creatures grew, requiring Indians to develop a more systematic approach to their presence. Not surprisingly, Indians initially employed familiar conceptual categories as they did so, fitting livestock into native understandings of what animals were, rather than altering their conception of what animals were to fit the new creatures. Just as predictably, the colonists intervened to redirect this process of incorporating new animals into the New World to suit their own purposes.


Native peoples first attempted to incorporate the new creatures into their world literally on their own terms. Instead of using English vocabulary or giving livestock newly-invented names, which would have emphasized their alien origins, Indians assigned them the names of the indigenous wild creatures they most closely resembled in appearance and behavior. Thus Roger Williams reported that when the Narragansetts noticed that an ockqutchaun, or woodchuck, was “about the bignesse of a Pig, and root[ed] like a Pig,” they decided to “give this name to all our Swine” They similarly assigned a native name to a horse—naynayoȗmewot—although Williams neglected in this case to explain the word choice.24

This naming technique represented one part of a broader strategy whereby Indians emphasized similarities between familiar objects and European goods as a way of easing their incorporation into native society. Williams offered numerous examples of this practice at work. Noticing “a consimilitude between our Guns and Thunder,” the Narragansetts called a gun “Péskunck, and to discharge [it] Peskhómmin that is to thunder.” The Narragansett word for “red copper kettle” (mishquokuk)—an English trade item—combined the terms for “red earth” (mishquock) and “kettle” (aúcuck). The word for “letter” became wussuckwhèke, derived from the verb “to paint” (wussuckwhómmin), because, Williams explained, “having no letters, their painting comes the neerest.” They called a shallop wunnauanoȗnuck and a skiff wunnauanounuckquèse, using variations of a generic term for “carrying Vessells.” Identifying Englishmen by their distinctive possessions, Narragansetts called them chauquaquock (“knive-men” in Williams’s translation) or wautaconâuog (“coatmen”). At other times, they simply called Englishmen waútacone, or “stranger.”25

Which items the Narragansetts chose to name is just as revealing as the way in which they went about naming them. Not all English goods received native names, at least in 1643 when Williams recorded Narragansett vocabulary. In addition to the terms mentioned above, Narragansetts had words for cloth, gunpowder, box, key, and iron—but not for a variety of English foods, tools, or buildings with which they had almost certainly come into contact.26 Evidently the most impressive or desirable goods—and, of course, the colonists themselves—first required Narragansett names, for the Indians coveted the objects and had to deal with colonists in order to get them. Little wonder that livestock figured so prominently on the list as well. They were unusual, numerous, and, unlike any of the other goods the English brought with them, capable of initiating contact with native people on their own.

Much as native language at first shaped the Indians’ identification of English creatures, native ideas about animals as spiritually powerful beings governed early encounters with the unfamiliar beasts. In applying those ideas, New England Indians may have cautiously employed the concept of manitou to describe domestic animals’ strange and as yet imperfectly understood powers. This, at least, would explain a curious incident recorded by John Winthrop in 1642. That summer, New England was awash in rumors of a Narragansett conspiracy against the colonists. Three Indian informers came forward in August to confirm the colonists’ worst fears, and one of them had been inspired to do so by an ominous encounter with an English animal. The Indian had recently been “hurt near to death” by a cart drawn by an ox. Assuming that this was no ordinary accident, he sent for Connecticut’s governor, John Haynes. It was clear that “Englishman’s God was angry with him,” the injured man explained, for that God “had set Englishman’s cow to kill him, because he had concealed such a conspiracy against the English.” Thus the injured man felt compelled to make a confession.27

Puritan believers in divine providence—including both Winthrop and Haynes—would have been just as likely to detect a godly admonition in such an accident. But they would have been less prone to focus on the ox as God’s instrument of punishment. For an Indian thoroughly accustomed to the idea of animals’ spiritual agency, however, the ox’s behavior attracted specific attention. Its spiritual protector—which either the Indian himself or, more likely, his English interlocutors identified as “Englishman’s God”—had demonstrated quite clearly its power to harm and a desire for propitiation that the Indian ignored at his peril.

This assimilation of new creatures and objects on Indian terms was hardly unique to New England, and probably typified North American Indians’ responses to contact with Europeans and their possessions. Just as they accepted imported copper and glass beads as equivalents of native copper and quartz crystals, Indians seem to have initially conceived of English animals as variants of indigenous beasts. And, as the incident with the ox suggests, the notion that certain substances and creatures might have ritual significance or spiritual power could readily be transferred to imported objects and animals. The flexible idea of manitou, applied to new creatures and things, may have offered a particularly effective way of incorporating them into native cultures without requiring any significant changes in Indian beliefs or behavior.28

In seventeenth-century New England, however, the Indians’ freedom to think about English animals as they wished diminished over time as the numbers of colonists and their herds multiplied. Linguistic changes revealed the Indians’ growing understanding that English livestock were not really like indigenous creatures. The Narragansetts abandoned analogies to local fauna and created new names for livestock that employed English words and thus recognized the animals’ alien character. Swine were no longer woodchucks but hógsuck or pígsuck; cows became côwsnuck, and goats, gôatesuck. As Roger Williams explained, “This Termination suck, is common in their language; and therefore they adde it to our English Cattell, not else knowing what names to give them.”29

This decision was not as arbitrary as Williams suggested. John Eliot’s study of Massachusett grammar revealed that the suffix og (which may have been pronounced uck by the Narragansetts) formed the plural of any noun representing an animate being. Eliot then echoed Williams’s observations by noting that Massachusett Indians called oxen oxesog and horses horsesog. When some Indians began learning English, they continued to combine English terms with native linguistic forms. William Wood, for instance, heard native hunters call a mare caught in a deer trap an “Englishman’s squaw horse.” He proceeded to ridicule them for having “no better epithet than to call her a woman’s horse” even though they probably used the word “squaw” as an adjective simply to indicate that it was a female animal.30

The invention of neologisms and English-language phrases symbolized the way in which Indians increasingly viewed livestock on English terms—an adaptation that was scarcely voluntary. But changing names was only one small step in the process whereby Indians lost the ability to incorporate domestic animals into their world in their own way. The colonists cared less about what the Indians called the animals than how they treated them. Most of all, they insisted that Indians recognize livestock as nothing more (and nothing less) than property. Prior to the colonists’ arrival, New England Indians regarded animals as property only after they were killed.31 And even then—as Josselyn’s description of the moose hunt indicates—successful hunters shared their bounty with members of the hunting party and their kin. There was no equivalent in the natives’ world (with the possible exception of dogs) to the animate property that accompanied English colonists from the Old World to the New. Their thinking about livestock, and not just their names for them, would have to change.

From the moment in the spring of 1631 when the Massachusett sachem Chickataubut paid a beaver skin in recompense for a pig killed by one of his men, New England Indians discovered that English ideas about livestock as property would overshadow whatever natives might have thought about the animals. They learned that cattle, horses, and swine should no more be killed than English goods should be stolen from colonists’ houses. Indians who hurt livestock, even inadvertently, faced prosecution in colonial courts. They could not retaliate directly against domestic animals that damaged their planting fields, but had to seek retribution through legal channels and learn to build fences to protect their crops. With English owners acting as such powerful human protectors, it may have seemed to Indians that livestock hardly needed spiritual guardians. Never before, in their experience, had “property” proven so troublesome or property owners so indifferent to keeping it under their control.32

Ironically, the colonists’ lax supervision of their domestic animals—a practical response to a scarcity of labor—strengthened their insistence that Indians recognize livestock as property. Because the animals ranged freely, it was all the more important that Indians learn to leave them alone. As far as the English settlers were concerned, the status of domestic animals as property dated from time out of mind and had nothing to do with methods of husbandry. The connection was evident in the word “cattle” itself, which shared etymological roots both with “chattel” and “capital.”33 The colonists’ intransigence on this point only intensified when they learned how efficiently their free-ranging animal property furthered the cause of imperial expansion. The English, more than other European colonizers, conceived of their New World empire as the extension of dominion over land, more than control of indigenous peoples or resources. Colonial livestock, foraging freely in woods and meadows, enlarged the compass of English occupation far beyond the bounds of towns and villages. And because the colonists believed that grazing livestock “improved” the land, domestic animals legitimized their claim to tracts where Indians only hunted—an activity that did not, as far as the English were concerned, secure their rights to property. John Winthrop spoke for many of his fellow colonists when he asserted that the Indians had no legitimate title to land “for they inclose no ground, neither have they cattell to maintayne it.” The fact that the colonists, at least during much of the seventeenth century, “inclosed” relatively little ground themselves and scarcely used their animals to maintain it went unremarked.34

Livestock wandered off into fields and woods, but colonists insisted that an invisible tether still connected them to their owners. A missing animal was missing property, and since Indians frequented the fields and woods, they were the likeliest suspects when creatures disappeared. The lack of corroborating evidence offered no obstacle to prosecuting native people who were known to harbor superstitions about animals rather than a respect for them as property. Thus in 1668 the Plymouth Colony court ordered Mekamoo to pay fifty shillings to William Pointing merely “on suspition” of killing Pointing’s cow. Only if evidence later demonstrated Mekamoo’s innocence could he have “the said sume returned to him againe.” This inversion of the usual assumptions about guilt and innocence was surely not unique, at least where Indians were concerned, and testified to the colonists’ readiness to entertain doubts about Indians’ honesty without reasonable proof.35

The expansion of the colonists’ dominion within New England only encouraged greater boldness in the making of such accusations. Jeremy Adams of Springfield, at least, did not let the lack of proof hinder him in lodging a particularly audacious complaint in 1669. Without so much as a shred of hard evidence, he insisted that Chickwallop and his men more than thirty years earlier had killed one of his cows—none other than the strange beast the Indians had found near the Connecticut River. Now Adams wanted justice, or at least compensation. Unable to make his word a sufficient defense against this outrageous charge, Chickwallop appealed to John Pynchon, the most influential Englishman in the valley, for support. In protesting his innocence, the sachem recalled his men’s surprise at finding the unusual beast so many years earlier and offered a description so detailed that Pynchon could identify it as a two- or “at the most” three-year-old cow. Convinced that Chickwallop was telling the truth, Pynchon defended him in a letter to Connecticut’s governor, John Winthrop Jr., and offered his own opinion about the errant cow. “[B]e it what it will or whosever it was,” Pynchon declared, “I have already heard that it died of itself.”36 The intercession of Pynchon and Winthrop apparently protected Chickwallop from further harassment, but their support—as much as Adams’s accusation—upheld the colonists’ view that cows were property. Adams’s charge failed to stick because he could not prove that the cow was his or that Chickwallop had killed it. Had Adams managed to substantiate both of these claims, Chickwallop—no matter what he had thought about the cow—would have been in trouble.

The story of Chickwallop and the beast reveals the extent to which English livestock helped to reshape the cultural, and not just the physical, environment in which New England’s Indians lived. Indians and colonists had deeply-embedded—and quite different—ideas about what animals were and how they should be treated, which guaranteed that encounters over livestock would become opportunities for cultural exchange. The Indians’ initial response—an ability to accept the new creatures and even to perceive in them evidence of manitou—indicated their willingness to negotiate the terms under which livestock might be incorporated into the New World. But the colonists showed none of the flexibility necessary for such an exchange. Their understanding of domestic animals as property only grew firmer in the context of colonization. Because colonists believed that their livestock helped establish English claims to Indian land and thus furthered the cause of English dominion, their status as chattel—as proxies for English occupants—could not be negotiable. The seemingly inexorable growth in the number of English settlers and English animals eventually tipped the balance in the colonists’ favor, ensuring that their views would prevail. As Chickwallop came to understand only too well, that initial encounter with the cow was a fateful one indeed.


1. John Pynchon to John Winthrop Jr., March 5, 1668/69, in Carl Bridenbaugh, ed., The Pynchon Papers, 2 vols. (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1982–85), 1:79–80. I thank Kevin Sweeney for this reference and for his identification of Chickwallop as the Norwottucks’ sachem.

2. Key works in this area include two books by Alfred W. Crosby Jr.: The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972) and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), as well as William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989); and, more generally, Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997).

3. Much new work in environmental history has also begun to examine the cultural impact of ecological change. See, for instance, the essays in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995).

4. Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (1643), ed. John J. Teunissen and Evelyn J. Hinz (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973), 173; John Eliot, The Indian Grammar Begun . . . (Cambridge, Mass: Marmaduke Johnson, 1666), 9. On the difficulty in recovering Indian ideas about the natural world, see Richard White, “Indian Peoples and the Natural World: Asking the Right Questions,” in Rethinking American Indian History, ed. Donald L. Fixico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 87–100. I thank Jim Drake for this reference.

5. Ives Goddard and Kathleen J. Bragdon, Native Writings in Massachusett, 2 vols., Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, no. 185, (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1988), 2:486–87; Ives Goddard, “Eastern Algonquian Languages,” in Bruce G. Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, Northeast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978), 70–77.

6. Roger Williams to Gov. John Winthrop, February 28, 1637/38, in Glenn W. LaFantasie, ed., The Correspondence of Roger Williams, 2 vols. (Hanover and London: Brown University Press/University Press of New England, 1988), 1:146. For Puritan beliefs in eclipses and other “wonders,” see David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), esp. chaps. 2, 5.

7. Edward Winslow, “Good Newes from New England. . .” [1624], in Alexander Young, ed., Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, from 1602 to 1625 (Boston: C. C. Little and J. Brown, 1841), 356–57; William S. Simmons, Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1610–1984 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986), 38–41, 172–234; Edward Johnson, Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence 1628–1651 [1654], ed. J. Franklin Jameson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 263; Paul J. Lindholdt, ed., John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New-England (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1988), 97. See also Kathleen J. Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 1500–1650 (Norman, Okla., and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 188–90 and, more generally, William S. Simmons, “Cultural Bias in the New England Puritans’ Perception of Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 38 (1981): 56–72.

8. Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 49; Henry Whitfield, “Strength Out of Weaknesse; or a Glorious Manifestation of the Further Progresse of the Gospel among the Indians in New England” [1652], in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3d ser., 4 (1834): 187; Simmons, Spirit of the New England Tribes, 51. Virtually every study of Native American spirituality emphasizes the lack of a sharp boundary between the natural and supernatural worlds. See, for instance, James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 16; Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 72–73; Clara Sue Kidwell, “Science and Ethnoscience: Native American World Views as a Factor in the Development of Native Technologies,” in Kendall E. Bailes, ed., Environmental History: Critical Issues in Comparative Perspective (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985), 277–87.

9. Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz, 191.

10. Variations in modern definitions of manitou suggest that scholars today share Williams’s difficulty in trying to find a precise translation that would be meaningful to non-Indian readers. See, for instance, Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 184–90; Simmons, Spirit of the New England Tribes, 38–41; Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500–1643 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 37–39; John A. Grim and Donald P. St. John, “The Northeast Woodlands,” in Native American Religions: North America, ed. Lawrence E. Sullivan (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 118; Elisabeth Tooker, ed., Native North American Spirituality of the Eastern Woodlands: Sacred Myths, Dreams, Visions, Speeches, Healing Formulas, Rituals and Ceremonials (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 11–30.

11. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 25; Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz, 173, 174, 225.

12. M. K. Bennett, “The Food Economy of the New England Indians, 1605–75,” Journal of Political Economy 63 (October 1955): 387–88.

13. Perhaps the best known historical study of the spiritual element in human-animal relations in Indian society is Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). Martin’s thesis about the effects of European contact and the fur trade on the Indian-animal relationship has sparked considerable criticism, but his description of pre-contact relations remains useful. For Martin’s critics, see Shepard Krech III, ed., Indians, Animals, and the Fur Trade: A Critique of Keepers of the Game (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1981). There are numerous examples of Indian conceptions of animal spirits in Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, Northeast; see, for instance, 84, 139, 192, 319. See also Colin G. Calloway, The Western Abenakis of Vermont, 1600–1800: War, Migration, and the Survival of an Indian People (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 49–50; Ruth Underhill, Red Man’s Religion: Beliefs and Practices of the Indians North of Mexico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 41–46.

14. M. K. Bennett estimated that southern New England Indians derived 65 percent of their daily calories from grain products, and 10 percent from meat; see “Food Economy of the New England Indians,” 392. For hunting in native New England, see Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 117–18; Cronon, Changes in the Land, 46–51.

15. Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 97–98, 187–88; Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz, 182, 210–14; William Wood, New England’s Prospect, ed. Alden T. Vaughan (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977), 81, 85, 111.

16. Lindholdt, ed., John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler, 20; Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 187–88; White, Middle Ground, 507.

17. Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz, 164; Williams described children stationed in “little watch-houses” to chase birds from cornfields, see 163. On shamans’ familiar spirits, see Simmons, Sprit of the New England Tribes, 91.

18. Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 133–34, 195–96.

19. The information in this and the following paragraph is from Lindholdt, ed., John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler, 98–99; John Josselyn, New Englands Rarities Discovered: In Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country (London: G. Widdowes, 1672), 20; Robert A. Brightman, Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 110–13, 117, 120, 123–32; Adrian Tanner, Bringing Home Animals: Religious Ideology and Mode of Production of the Mistassini Cree Hunters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 155–56.

20. Adriaen Van der Donck, A Description of the New Netherlands, ed. Thomas F. O’Donnell (Syracuse,: Syracuse University Press, 1968), 120; Brightman, Grateful Prey, 118–19, 132–33.

21. Wood, New England’s Prospect, ed. Vaughan, 85. For English colonists’ fascination with Indian appearances, see Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “Presentment of Civility: English Reading of American Self-Presentation in the Early Years of Colonization,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 54 (1997): 193–228.

22. Wood, New England’s Prospect, ed. Vaughan, 85; Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz, 127. For archaeological findings, see Charles C. Willoughby. Antiquities of the New England Indians (Cambridge: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1935), 106–10, 164, 166, 169–70; Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 118–19, 187; Patricia E. Rubertone, Grave Undertakings: An Archaeology of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians (Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 150–51, 156.

23. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1610–1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 84; George R. Hamell, “Mythical Realities and European Contact in the Northeast During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Man in the Northeast, 33 (1987): 69; Constance A. Crosby, “The Algonkian Spiritual Landscape,” in Peter Benes, ed., Algonkians of New England: Past and Present, The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, Annual Proceedings 1991 (Boston: Boston University, 1993), 35–41.

24. Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz, 173–74. James Trumbull translated ockqutchaun as woodchuck; see his Natick Dictionary, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Bulletin 25 (Washington, DC., 1903), 277. Other Indian peoples similarly drew on analogies with indigenous creatures in naming Old World animals. The Nahuatl or Mexico initially called a horse maçatl (deer), a mare cihuamaçatl (female deer), and, interestingly, a sheep ichcatl (cotton); see James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 279–80. Mayan Indians at first called a horse a “tapir of Castile”; see Inga Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucutan, 1517–1570 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 137.

25. Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz, 103, 121, 133, 137, 138, 158, 176, 240.

26. Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz. 125, 216, 234.

27. White, Middle Ground, 25; Richard S. Dunn, James Savage, and Laetitia Yeandle, eds., The Journal of John Winthrop 1630–1649 (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1996), 406. For another discussion of Indians’ imputing spiritual power to European livestock, see Rebecca Kugel, “Of Missionaries and Their Cattle: Ojibwa Perceptions of a Missionary as Evil Shaman,” Ethnohistory 41 (1994): 227–44.

28. Christopher L. Miller and George R. Hamell, “A New Perspective on Indian-White Contact: Cultural Symbols and Colonial Trade,” Journal of American History, 73 (1986–1987): 311–28; White, Middle Ground, 25; Constance Crosby, “From Myth to History, or Why King Philip’s Ghost Walks Abroad,” in Mark P. Leone and Parker B. Potter, eds., The Recovery of Meaning: Historical Archaeology in the Eastern United States (Washington, D.C., and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 183–209.

29. Williams, Key into the Language of America, ed. Teunissen and Hinz, 174. They adopted a similar change in their word for “Englishmen,” which became Englishmánnuck; see 197.

30. Eliot, Indian Grammar Begun, 9; Wood, New England’s Prospect, ed. Vaughan, 106–7.

31. Cronon, Changes in the Land, 64, 130.

32. Dunn, et al., eds., Journal of John Winthrop, 52; Virginia DeJohn Anderson, “King Philip’s Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 51 (1994): 607–13; Peter Karsten, “Cows in the Corn, Pigs in the Garden, and ‘the Problem of Social Costs’: ‘High’ and ‘Low’ Legal Cultures of the British Diaspora Lands in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries,” Law & Society Review 32 (1998): 80–83.

33. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “cattle”; see also Gary L. Francione, Animals, Property, and the Law (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 34.

34. Allyn B. Forbes, et al., eds., Winthrop Papers, 1498–1634, 6 vols. (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929–1992), 2: 120. On English ideas of empire, see Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500–c. 1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 76–78; Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Chickwallop and the Beast Conquest of the New World 1492–1640 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), chap. 1. On free-range livestock husbandry in New England, see Anderson, “King Philip’s Herds,” 604; Howard S. Russell, A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1976), chap. 4; Cronon, Changes in the Land, 141–42; Darrett B. Rutman, Husbandmen of Plymouth: Farms and Villages in the Old Colony, 1620–1692 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 17–19.

35. Nathaniel Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, eds., Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, 12 vols. (Boston: W. White, 1855–1861), 4:190–91. For other examples of Indians being accused of killing livestock without due proof, see Shurtleff and Pulsifer, eds., Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, 9:209; Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, 5 vols. (Boston: W. White, 1853–1854), vol. 4, pt. 2, p. 361.

36. Bridenbaugh, ed., Pynchon Papers, 1:79–80.