17TH Century

Long before Europeans and Africans arrived to what became John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” coastal Massachusetts was home to Algonquian speaking peoples, including the Wampanoag, Narragansett, Abenaki, Nipmuc, and others. During the mid-seventeenth century, Native peoples fought against European encroachment, and negotiated for tribal and cultural sovereignty in the face of broken treaties and forced conversion. Following King Philip’s War (1675-1678), some Native Americans were enslaved and sold by European traders in exchange for Africans in the Caribbean. This trade in Indian and African laborers made Massachusetts a leader in the early transatlantic slave trade; in 1641, the colony became the first to legalize slavery in its "Body of Liberties." Although the number of enslaved Africans and Indians was small compared to colonies in Virginia, New Amsterdam, and Rhode Island, Massachusetts’ economy relied on the slave trade for much of its wealth, including the founding and maintenance of its earliest institutions of higher learning. By 1708, there were 550 enslaved people across Massachusetts Bay, a steady increase from the 200 slaves in 1676. Still, people of African descent resisted classification by their enslaved status alone. During the 1680s, some formed family and kinship ties with the Wampanoag Confederacy across the colony’s south shore, while others lived quasi-free lives in the farms of western Massachusetts, or along the busy wharves of Salem and Boston. Still others, like Onesimus, enslaved to Cotton Mather, contributed to the region’s social and scientific innovation. Using the skills acquired in his native Africa, Onesimus proposed inoculation as a way to prevent the spread of smallpox, a deadly pandemic in the colony during the late seventeenth century. Mather then used this controversial technique to successfully protect colonists against the disease during the 1720s.