Indigenous Women at Old North During the British Colonial Period
In this episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie shares primary sources that reveal the relationship that one adolescent Indigenous woman, a sixteen-year-old named Elizabeth, had with the Old North Church during the complicated days of the British colonial era. Jaimie examines Elizabeth’s story in the larger context of what it meant for Indigenous and Black people to attend Old North, a Church of England congregation with close ties to the British Crown, as the American Revolution began.
See below for the video, primary sources, episode transcript, and a resource list!
Selections from “Baptisms at Old North Church, 1723 – 1775”
Welcome back to Illuminating the Unseen. Today, we continue our series on Indigenous and Black people’s experiences at the Old North Church during the British colonial period. I am Jaimie Crumley, the Research Fellow at the Old North Foundation.
Before we discuss today’s primary sources, I want to provide some historical context about the church’s history from 1723-1778. As you might remember from our video on Timothy Cutler’s Society for the Propogation of the Gospel sermon, Old North was a Church of England congregation. The Church of England is England’s established church, and the monarch is its head. After Old North church’s first rector, Timothy Cutler, died in Boston in 1765, the church called Mather Byles as their second rector. Byles was a Loyalist. 1
With tensions with Great Britain rising, the church’s status in the colonies was in flux. In April of 1775, the Old North vestry released Byles from his service to the church. He told them he would leave to serve as the rector at a church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Byles never reached Portsmouth to begin his appointment. On April 11, 1775, the Old North Church, and many other Church of England congregations closed to the public until August 1778. As the war between Great Britain and the American colonies commenced, many wealthy Loyalists, including Byles, fled for Nova Scotia.
I share this historical context to explain that the Indigenous and Black people who were part of this Church of England congregation in the British colonial period occupied a uniquely complex social and political status. Unlike their Indigenous and Black counterparts who attended congregational churches led by ministers who were openly opposed to British authority, Indigenous and Black Old Northers participated in a church that remained loyal to the British Crown.
As the war began, Indigenous and Black Old Northers likely responded in many ways. Some of them probably fought to maintain British authority in the colonies. Still others likely reveled in the possibility of becoming free in the new United States. The freedom petitions that emerged after the Revolution indicate that Black people in New England were hungry for freedom. I will say more on Massachusetts freedom petitions in an upcoming video. However, most Indigenous and Black Old Northers were likely terrified throughout the British colonial era. They might have felt like pawns in the British and American imperial game.
Today our primary sources are documents that reveal the relationship that one adolescent Indigenous woman had with this church during the complicated days of the British colonial era. You will see images of the sources on your screen. The images are also be available for you to view in this blog.
During my first week as Old North’s research fellow, I read the list of baptisms that were performed at the church from 1723 until April 11, 1775. I was excited to study the list because I assumed that I would learn the names of some of the church’s earliest members and their families. With these names, I could piece together some of the stories of people who were part of Old North in its earliest days.
The work was not quite as straightforward as I had hoped. I saw that among the baptized there were children whose names were not known to the congregation. For example, on this page, the baptized include a person labeled by the name “Female” who was a member of the Calder family. On this page, there is also a person called “Child” who was a member of the Carnes family. I wondered what their stories might be. I also wondered about families that seemed to baptize many of their members at once. Look, for example, at the Gray family, who baptized people of many ages. However, even in that large family, a name remains unknown. One of the children’s names is listed as “Female.”
Just before I reached the Gray family, there was another entry that gave me pause. Where I expected to see a family’s surname, I read an adolescent woman’s first name instead. The entry says, “Elizabeth, an Indian.” My mind whizzed to try to make sense of this irregular entry.
After I reviewed the index of baptisms from 1724-1775, I rushed to a different list to learn when each person was baptized. I wondered if people identified as “Male,” “Female,” or “Child,” might be called by name in these records. I also wondered whether Elizabeth’s name might appear again along with more insight into who she was. As I worked through the records, Elizabeth’s name re-emerged. I learned that she was baptized on January 20 in 1733.
Again, I was frustrated. She was listed only by her first name. And for Elizabeth, the Indigenous sixteen-year-old in British colonial Massachusetts, the names of no family members appear. The record lists her as an “Adult,” and when a person reached adulthood in this church, the names of their parents need not appear in their baptismal records.
With this limited information, our task is to piece together Elizabeth’s story. We cannot know what factors led her to be baptized at the Old North Church, but we can assume that she was a Massachusett woman.2 Her ancestors called the land we call Boston Shawmut. She was born in about 1717 or 1718, about 88 years after British colonists began to settle in Charlestown and Boston. She had likely learned Massachusett sacred traditions.
We can only imagine how other Massachusett people experienced Elizabeth’s baptism at this church. The preservation of only her first name, age, and baptism date reveals nothing about her experiences before and after her baptism. Was she the servant of a member of the congregation? Was she a friend of some of the earliest Black attendees? Did she bring other Massachusett people with her to the church whose names are unknown to us because they were not baptized, married, or buried at the church? These are questions that we cannot definitively answer with the information we have.
Elizabeth’s appearance in the church records, and that of another Indigenous woman named Jerusha Will, reveal that Massachusett women, and their relations, were connected to this church during the British colonial period.3 We do not have sufficient information to know whether they participated in the rituals of the Old North Church by force or by choice. Still, Elizabeth’s baptism gestures toward several possibilities.
Perhaps the church’s early leadership earnestly invited Indigenous peoples to be part of this church and rejoiced in their presence. However, it is also possible that the church participated in forced conversions. As human motivations are always multi-layered, the truth about the relationship between Massachusett women like Elizabeth and the Old North Church likely lies somewhere between those two extremes. Seeing her name in the archival record excites me to learn more about the experiences of Indigenous people in Boston’s North End after the American Revolution. I will keep you posted about what I learn.
As always, please share your thoughts on this subject. What do you glean from Elizabeth’s brief appearance in the church’s records during the British colonial period? Please scroll down for a resource list that will get you started if you want to learn more about Indigenous history and culture in New England. I am happy to make additional recommendations for viewing, listening, and reading as we work collectively to ensure we do not replicate the ongoing harm done to Indigenous New Englanders by continuing to overlook their histories. Please share your ideas about Indigenous women’s history at Old North in a comment below this video or write to me directly at email@example.com.
1. Loyalists were people in the British colonies who remained loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution.
2. The Massachusett were a Native American tribe from the region in and around present-day Greater Boston.
3. The word relations includes Elizabeth and Jerusha Will’s biological and non-biological kin. The word relations also includes their non-human relations such as the land, air, ocean, and animals.
Resource List — Indigenous New England
Some of the academic articles listed below are behind a paywall. If you need help accessing the recommended articles, please email Jaimie at firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance. Check with your local librarian for help finding the recommended books. If you seek additional resources, Jaimie is happy to make recommendations!
“Captivating Eunice: Membership, Colonialism, and Gendered Citizenships of Grief”—Audra Simpson (This article is helpful to those who want to learn more about belonging, citizenship, gender, and grief in colonial New England through the lens of Mohawk and Puritan women’s experiences.)
“Native Americans, Conversion, and Christian Practice in Colonial New England, 1640-1730”—Linford D. Fisher (This article is helpful for those who want to know more about the lived religion of Indigenous peoples in colonial New England. The article allows us to consider the synchronicity between Indigenous and Christian spiritual practices.)
“Mary Occom and Sarah Simon: Gender and Native Literacy in Colonial New England” –Hilary E. Wyss (This article is helpful for those who want to learn more about literary culture among women in the colonial period, differences in treatment among native students based on gender, and how schooling became a tool of social management among native children in colonial New England.)
Firsting and Lasting—Jean M. O’Brien (This book is about how local histories of New England in the nineteenth century actively worked to erase Indigenous people and to promote the myth of the “disappearing Indian.”)
Native Studies Keywords—An edited volume that contains essays that define some of the key terms and ideas in Native Studies. (If you want pdfs of any of the chapters, please email Jaimie to request them. )
Mayflower 400 — 400 years of Wampanoag History