Swindler Sachem: The American Indian Who Sold His Birthright, Dropped Out of Harvard, and Conned the King of England by Jenny Hale Pulsipher
Recovering historical Native lives matters, not least because their experiences can invigorate seemingly familiar histories. Take, for example, Boston in the seventeenth century. Could there be a more studied colonial space in North America? Yet Jenny Hale Pulsipher's new biography, Swindler Sachem, uses the life of the Nipmuc John Wompas—a man whose unique experiences included claiming to be a leader (a sachem) among his people so he could profit (swindle) from the Native land market—to render Boston, New England, and even the English Atlantic refreshingly unfamiliar. To probe the moment when colonists and Indians were determining if and how they would coexist, Pulsipher follows Wompas as he lived in colonial homes, studied in grammar school, read Latin at Harvard, worked on Boston's wharves, and sailed on English ships. Though the enduring image of colonial Boston remains a place brimming with English people as they labored to build their city on a hill, Pulsipher joins scholars such as Margaret Ellen Newell, Wendy Warren, and Linford D. Fisher in highlighting not only the existence but the importance of Native men's and women's labor in Boston and the larger region's economy.1 And though Swindler Sachem is a remarkable story, Pulsipher carefully balances Wompas's extraordinary adventures with major events in New England Indian history, including bouts of epidemic disease, forced labor, land loss, and King Philip's War.
Wompas was born around 1637 into the Nipmuc community of Hassanamesit at a moment when the town, along with many others in Native New England, was struggling with the ravages of epidemic disease, the fallout of the Pequot War, and colonial encroachment. Like a number of their contemporaries, Wompas's parents turned to the Christianity propagated by English missionary John Eliot and Native missionaries. By 1646, the family had moved to Nonantum, a nascent praying town (or community of Christian Indians). Wompas's mother died the following year, and his father soon after apprenticed him into an English home in nearby Roxbury, where he learned to read and write. His education propelled him to Harvard's newly formed Indian College; Pulsipher carefully [End Page 588] re-creates his experience there, providing an intimate treatment of the school's early Indian scholars. Her discussion of Wompas's notations within his copy of Cicero's De Officiis offers a rare glimpse into his frustrations during coursework, the subversive wit he used to cope, and his hopes for life beyond Cambridge—namely (as he wrote in Latin), his "desire to be at sea" (82). Wompas proved serious about this desire and, after three years of study, abandoned his Latin tutors for the high seas. In discussing this move, Pulsipher offers one of the earlier examples of the many Native seamen from New England who joined sailing crews in the decades that followed. Over the course of many years, this maritime community would provide essential support to Wompas at home and abroad.
Pulsipher also carefully weaves in the life story of Wompas's wife, Ann Prask—which is particularly valuable given that glimpses into the lives of Native women from this period remain frustratingly rare. A young girl from Mahican country near present-day Albany, New York, Prask had only recently arrived in southern New England with her father when English forces captured her and transported her to Roxbury following the Pequot War. Her young age, unfamiliarity with the area, and distance from kin may explain why Prask did not escape, and, having grown up there, she chose to live the remainder of her life in the Boston area. Though the details are unclear, it seems Prask regained her freedom through her marriage to Wompas. Prask claimed rights to a large tract of land from her father, which her new husband sold for a large sum, evidently acquiring the means to purchase both her freedom and the only Native-owned home in Boston at that time. Prask's experiences illustrate the undefined, sometimes negotiable terms of bound labor for Indians in colonial society. That legal documents did not always identify Prask as an Indian and that she lived through King Philip's War in Boston speak to a degree of flexibility not always obvious in this colonial center.
The legal and social flexibility in Boston also allowed Wompas, in 1667, to use his Nipmuc background, English education and contacts, and tenuous claims on his wife's natal territory to plunge into the colonial market in Indian land. Though Wompas's land speculation was exceptional for Native men and women, it highlights the larger point that English possession of Native land was not always a direct, short, or even assured path. As Pulsipher argues, Wompas deployed "legal code switching" (91) to first orchestrate the transfer of land his wife could claim based on Native inheritance customs and to then claim her rights for himself using the English custom of coverture. Armed with a clear knowledge of the English tendency to underpay for Native land, Wompas insisted on, and seemingly received, the lucrative price of £530 for her lands, which allowed him to begin his life with Prask in Boston.
Seeing value in his legal acumen, Wompas's Nipmuc relations turned to him for guidance in confirming possession of their land within the English [End Page 589] legal system. They were soon bitterly disappointed, as Wompas lost their trust through abusing alcohol and selling tracts of Nipmuc land over their loud protests. When these disputes came before English officials, Wompas claimed he was rightfully selling his birthright as a sachem. In response, Nipmuc kin argued he was a "com[m]on Indian" (185), not a sachem, and did not have special rights to the land he was selling.
By bringing into full view the machinations of the process of dispossession, Pulsipher emphasizes that Indian land "loss" was not simply the inevitable outcome of English farmers swarming Native land but also the direct result of concerted efforts by English leaders and land speculators (often one and the same) who stood to make enormous financial gains. For instance, Pulsipher demonstrates the wide gulf between the cost per acre at which the English bought Indian land when Indians were under financial or judicial pressure compared to the price at which the English turned around and sold that same territory. Though Wompas's life demonstrates how some Native men and women worked within the rigged system to extract some small advantages, Pulsipher never loses sight of Wompas's all-too-common financial stresses. Using a remarkable range of records, she shows how Wompas consistently struggled to meet the costs required to live in colonial society, thereby driving him, like so many other Native men and women, into debt peonage.
In 1674, the legal complications surrounding Wompas's land sales grew so burdensome that Boston magistrates prohibited him from selling any more land, presumably to safeguard English buyers. This could have been the end for the schemes of the swindler sachem, but instead Wompas sailed to England to petition Charles II to intercede on his behalf. Over the course of three years, Wompas marshaled a network of friends to accomplish this feat—a scribe to write his petition, New England officials to secure his admittance to Whitehall, even friends to bail him out of debtor's prison. With this support and his own legal savvy, Wompas convinced Charles II that he was both a sachem with land rights to sell and a loyal English subject whose liberties had been impinged on by Massachusetts Bay officials. Though Pulsipher's earlier work shows that the crown's support for Native people often proved hollow, after three years of struggle in London Wompas left court with a letter from the king addressed to the governor of Massachusetts granting Wompas the right to sell land.2 But his return to New England in 1677 was not triumphant. While Wompas lived abroad through the terrifying years of King Philip's War, Ann Wompas had stayed at home and died in a kitchen accident in his absence. She had lingered long enough to bequeath the Wompases' house to the same English family who took her as captive. [End Page 590]
Given his fraught history of selling off Nipmuc land, Pulsipher offers Wompas a degree of redemption by arguing that the swindler sachem began to support, rather than undermine, his Nipmuc kin following English atrocities in King Philip's War. His final swindle, Pulsipher argues, marked an effort to give back after a lifetime of taking. With his knowledge of English legal systems, Wompas crafted a will that reserved the four square miles that now form the base of the Nipmucs' present-day Hassanamisco Reservation. His will put the English in a unique bind: if English claimants wanted to present it as evidence to legitimize his prior sale of Nipmuc land to them, the English authorities would also have to acknowledge the Nipmucs as beneficiaries as well.
Pulsipher's book proves that dogged archival research in manuscript records still pays off, even in the digital age. She leverages her formidable paleography and archival skills to access a trove of documents that includes personal correspondence, court records, land deeds, and legislative records. Her research also draws on linguistic knowledge and conversations with members of the Nipmuc Nation, who provide particularly compelling insights about Wompas's different renderings of his surname. Such research serves as an example of ways that engagement with tribal members can add valuable insights.
Through this unlikely story, Pulsipher invites readers to reconcile Wompas's life story with assumptions about early colonial centers such as Boston and London, places where Native men and women seem to exist only beyond the pale. And therein lies the power of this work—to create space in our understanding of the colonial world for men like him. In Pulsipher's hands, John Wompas, with all his quirky adventures and contradictions, is a reminder that colonialism, for all its seemingly stable structure, was a messy process in part because the men and women of early America refuse to align with our expectations. Wompas's life had moments of tragedy and triumph, deception and despair, making him all too human in his contradictions. [End Page 591]
1. Margaret Ellen Newell, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery (Ithaca, N.Y., 2015); Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (New York, 2016); Linford D. Fisher, "'Why shall wee have peace to bee made slaves': Indian Surrenderers during and after King Philip's War," Ethnohistory 64, no. 1 (January 2017): 91–114.
2. Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England (Philadelphia, 2005).