Praying Indians in the American Revolution
A lecture delivered by Robert D. Hall, Jr for a joint meeting of the Col. William McIntosh Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Needham Historical Society, February 8, 2004.
Old cemeteries have always fascinated me. Since I was a child, I’ve wandered through hundreds of graveyards in every New England state and in several southern states. There I’ve been especially interested in finding the gravestones of men and women who served in every American war from our nation’s beginnings to today.
Last spring, I found in the archives of the Needham library a pamphlet printed by the Sons of the American Revolution in which they listed every revolutionary war veteran buried in most Massachusetts cemeteries and on whose graves they had place cast iron revolutionary war veteran’s markers.
Using it as a guide to the Needham Cemetery on Nehoiden Street, where 29 Revolutionary War veterans were listed, I was able to find 18 of the 29 graves and I returned several markers that were placed on the wrong graves to their proper places.
There were six markers in front of one tomb, yet only two Revolutionary War veterans were buried there. Needham’s best known and most distinguished Revolutionary War veteran, Colonel McIntosh, had no marker or flag on his grave at all…but he does now.
I guess it was this addiction to visiting old cemeteries and looking for veteran’s graves that led me to become involved in locating several veterans’ gravesites including that of Alexander Quapish…the last Native American to die in Needham.
About 30 years ago I acquired some letters written by a Civil War soldier, Private William Dinsmore. He was from Chelsea, Massachusetts and had been killed at the 2nd battle of Bull Run. When I couldn’t find his grave in the Chelsea cemetery, I discovered that he had died in an ambulance on the way to Centreville, VA and his body had been cast off into a ditch on the side of the road. My attempt to find where he might have been buried led to me attending dowsing school in Danville, Vermont where I learned the art of dowsing. Then I walked the road from Manassas to Centerville using dowsing rods like these in an attempt to find William Dinsmore’s grave because it’s claimed that the rods also act as grave finders…but my dowsing was without success.
My guess is that Dinsmore’s bones were removed at the end of the Civil War along with those of his Union comrades and that Private Dinsmore’s remains were then interred in a tomb at Arlington National Cemetery. In that tomb are buried the remains of 2000 Yankee soldiers who were removed from the Manassas battlefields after the war because of the rumor that swept the north that southern bone merchants were disinterring the Union dead and grinding up their bones to sell as fertilizer to southern farmers.
My next search for a veteran’s grave took place in 1999. I was asked by the Massachusetts Commissioner of Veterans’ Services to research the records of the USS Constitution’s round-the-world voyage in 1845. It was then that a sailor died while Old Ironsides was in Da Nang harbor in Vietnam. Landsman William Cook was buried in a buddhist cemetery on Monkey Mountain and the captain of the ship paid the monks $2 for perpetual care of Cook’s grave. A team of three Vietnam veterans went to look for his grave and they found it with the help of my dowsing rods. The Boston Globe Sunday agazine section did an article on the search in October 2000.
My next search involved finding and returning the remains of a confederate sailor, Lieutenant William Johnston, who died at Fort Warren in 1863. He was subsequently buried and reburied three times before ending up in the military cemetery at Fort Devens. Through research on the internet, I found his nearest living relatives and the fact that there was an empty grave at his wife’s feet waiting for him in Fernandina Beach, Florida. I made the necessary arrangements to return Lieutenant Johnston to his last resting place in October 2002. I used my dowsing rods to confirm Lt. Johnston’s presence under his gravestone at Fort Devens.
And most recently, I searched for the burial site of Needham’s Alexander Quapish, a revolutionary War veteran of the battle of Bunker Hill.
Polly Attridge called to my attention in Clarke’s History of Needham to a 1776 petition by Revolutionary War soldier Michael Bacon of Needham requesting payment by the Massachusetts General Court for burying an Indian. He asked for 6 pounds 8 shillings for caring for Private Alexander Quapish. In view of the fact that he was only 11 years old at the time, I assume his father or an older relative actually put this petition together. Last year, I acquired this copy of the petition from the state archives to be placed in the Needham Historical Society files.
In this petition, Michael Bacon of Needham, asked the General Court in July, 1776 as follows:
“That one Alexander Quapish, a poor Indian belonging to this state, who was taken sick in the army near Cambridge, came to the house of your petitioner in said Needham in a suffering condition, on the 15th day of November 1775 and remained there sick until the 23rd day of March 1776, and then died, and your petitioner was at great trouble and charge in boarding, nursing, and burying said Indian.” Bacon’s bill was for 6 pounds, 8 shillings. He charged 8 shillings for the coffin and 3 shillings for digging Alexander’s grave.
In 1775 when Alexander was taken home to Needham by Michael Bacon, at least 3 Bacon families lived in the Needham Leg (now South Natick). Michael Bacon was a member of one of those families but I’ve been unable to determine which one…however they all lived in what was then known as the Indian land – also called the wilderness land. Today, we would call it an Indian reservation.
It was here that the Christian or “Praying Indians” of Natick, converted by the Reverend John Eliot beginning in 1650, established their community. Over the next 125 years, the once savage Indians became farmers, established homesteads, built frame houses, lost their tribal identity, and intermarried with blacks and whites. They were more or less “anglified” and civilized by the start of the American Revolution.
While many continued to look like Indians and were frequently referred to as mulattos, after more than a century living with and among Needham’s first settlers, they thought and acted and through intermarriage some even looked like Englishmen.
So, when the Revolutionary War began, it was as natural for the Praying Indians as it was for their English neighbors, to join in the rebellion and march off to Concord and Lexington and Bunker Hill as did 10-year old Michael Bacon, who joined the army in Cambridge just days before the battle of Bunker Hill.
The Indian land set aside for settlement by the praying Indians was located in modern day Natick but also portions of the Leg extended into Dover, Wellesley, and Needham.
A 1656-acre wedge-shaped westerly and southerly portion about two and a half miles long and one and a half miles wide was included within the boundaries of the town of Needham when it was set apart from Dedham in 1711. It wasn’t until 1797 that most of the Needham Leg officially became part of the town of Natick.
By 1670, John Eliot reported that he had established additional settlements of praying Indians in the Connecticut colony and on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and in Sandwich and Stoughton to the east and south of Natick. To the north and west of Natick, he established praying Indian towns in Chelmsford, Littleton, Marlborough, Grafton, and Hopkinton and then reaching out as far as Stockbridge.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, most of the praying Indians in these towns had ceased their traditional way of life and been assimilated into English society. When the call came to join the fight for independence, at least 17 of the Needham militia that went off to fight the British in Concord and Lexington and Menotomy were praying Indians. Many hundreds of these praying Indians from all over New England ultimately served with Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War.
Unfortunately there is no accurate count of just how many Indians – full blood or mixed blood, praying or otherwise, served during the Revolutionary War. The National Park Service has estimated that of the 250,000 men who served in Washington’s army, 5,500 were Indians.
One of the problems in identifying whether or not a soldier was an Indian had to do with his name and the percentage of Indian blood that ran in his veins. If it could be shown he had at least 1/16th Indian blood and the rest was either black or white he could be considered an Indian.
Identification of the race of a Revolutionary War veteran has often been based on whether or not a name on a militia roster either was or sounded like an Indian word or the name for a black slave. Consider the name Crispus Attucks who some believe was black. He was not. We know this victim of the Boston Massacre was a praying Indian because the Attucks Indian family was listed among the Natick praying Indians and Crispus’ birth was recorded in Framingham. Attucks is an Indian word for deer, so Crispus apparently was of mixed Indian, white, and black blood because he was identified as a mulatto in the Boston Gazette report of the massacre.
Also adding to the racial confusion, many Indians had taken English names or been assimilated into English families. So some patriots positively identified as Indians or part-Indians, had such names as Ebenezer Ephraim, Amos Tanner, Benjamin Thomas, and Jacob Speen.
Further, it’s entirely possible that Michael Bacon and a host of others who lived in the Needham Leg and served in the Revolutionary army possessed a smidgen or more of Indian blood.
At the age of 10, Michael Bacon joined the army at Cambridge and served at the battle of Bunker Hill…probably as a drummer boy because he’s also listed as serving as a drummer boy at Castle Island in December 1776.
While at Cambridge, Michael met Alexander Quapish, a 34-year old praying Indian originally from Yarmouth. Probably because Alexander was the only Indian in the Dedham company, and possibly because Michael Bacon may have been part-Indian himself and he did live in the Needham Leg among the Natick praying Indians…it seems likely that Michael and Alexander became army buddies.
Before joining the army, Alexander Quapish had moved from the Praying Indian village on Cape Cod to Dedham where he met and married Sarah David in 1767. They had at least one daughter, Alice. Sarah died in 1774 and in 1775 Alexander Quapish became a member of Captain Whiting’s Dedham Company. Because of her father’s service, Alice Quapish’s descendents would be eligible for membership in the DAR. The last I learned of Alexander Quapish’s descendents is that in 1800, Alice Quapish married Thomas Cuff — a Gay Head Indian. Research into the Cuff family geneology might uncover descendents of Private Alexander Quapish.
If you have read the February and March 2003 issues of the Gazette, you know that I had wondered where Michael Bacon had buried Alexander after his death. Through the internet, I made contact with Marco Kaltofen who heads the Natick and Needham West Militia and Minuteman Companies and has done extensive research on the men from the Needham Leg who participated in the Revolutionary War. Marco was 99% positive that Michael Bacon had buried Alexander Quapish in the 100 acre Indian Burial Ground on Pond Street, near one of the Bacon residences. He had records that indicated that 17 Indian veterans of the Revolutionary War had been buried in the Indian cemetery.
It was only logical that when Alexander Quapish died in Michael Bacon’s Needham home, a boy of 11 did not make the funeral arrangements. Rather an adult (probably Michael’s father) had to do this and also pay to have the coffin built and the grave dug. It only makes sense that Alexander would have been buried in the Indian cemetery on Pond Street near Bacon’ home where other Indian veterans were also interred.
Having determined where Alexander was buried, I then contacted the Natick Veteran’s Services officer and made arrangements to have veterans’ markers and American flags placed in the remaining patch of the original 100-acre cemetery to honor Alexander Quapish and the 16 other Revolutionary War veterans buried somewhere near there. On Memorial Day, 2003, for the first time in 227 years these Indian veterans of the Revolutionary War were recognized.
Most of the praying Indians who served during the Revolutionary War did so enlisting as individuals or as members of a local militia unit. This was not true however of the Mohican Indian tribe from New York State that in the 1730’s relocated to John Eliot’s mission village in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where they became Christians and settled into an English-style village similar to the one in the Needham Leg.
You may remember the novel Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts. It was about Rogers’ Rangers, the famous company of New England woodsmen – including some from Dedham and Needham – who served the English during the French and Indian War. In 1756, a company of praying Indians from Stockbridge was also attached to Captain Robert Rogers’ ranger company.
Not only did they serve the English in the French and Indian War, the tribe as a whole supported the Revolutionary cause and sent hundreds of their warriors to the American army. In November, 1776 a letter was sent from Stockbridge to the Continental Congress that stated:
“Far from desiring to remain neuter in the dispute between Great Britain and America, they have made themselves acquainted with the merits of the controversy, and have taken an active part in our favor, enlisting their young men in our army, while their counsellors and sachems have carefully sent belts of wampum by their messengers to the Six Nations, to the Canada Indians, and to the Shawnees on the Ohio, addressing them in such terms as they judged would have the greatest tendency to attach them to the interests of the United States.”
In addition to serving in the American army, through their influence the Stockbridge Indians helped to keep other tribes from supporting the British and kept the frontier relatively free from Indian raids that would have prevented the local militia from joining the fight against the British regulars. By the summer of 1778, Stockbridge Indians had fought in every major campaign in the eastern theatre of the American Revolution from Bunker Hill to the Battle of Monmouth.
And it was at White Plains that an advanced scout unit of about 50 American Indians…mostly from Stockbridge …ran into a unit of the Queen’s Rangers. Many of the Stockbridge Indians had served with Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian Wars. Now they faced a company of loyalists that had formerly made up the famous Rogers’ Rangers and was initially headed by Robert Rogers, a New Hampshire man and now a Tory.
Some historians believe the spark of the American Revolution may have begun in the ranks of Rogers’ Rangers. The British had treated the Rangers poorly during the French and Indian War and this helped to strengthen the colonists resolve against the British. In 1775, a number of former members of Rogers’ Rangers fired upon the British at Concord and Lexington. And finally, one of America’s best officers during the Revolution was General John Stark, who had been Rogers’ lieutenant and later was a colonel commanding at the battle of Bunker Hill.
After the French and Indian War, Robert Rogers went to England. He then returned to America to join the Revolution but George Washington refused his offer of help because he feared that Rogers might be a loyalist spy. Outraged by this, Rogers openly joined the British and organized and commanded the Queen’s Rangers, which met in battle at White Plains with the Stockbridge Indian scouts who had formerly served with the Rangers in the French and Indian War. Outnumbered five to one, the Stockbridge Indians fought gallantly but were overcome and had to retreat and were run down by cavalry and hit on the flanks by infantry. Of the approximate 50 Indians in the fight, the British reported some 37 to 40 Indians were killed or desparately wounded while 10 prisoners were taken. After the battle, local residents buried 18 Stockbridge Indians in a place now known as Indian field in Van Courtland Park in the Bronx.
In 1906, the Bronx chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a memorial of rough boulders in memory of the Stockbridge Indians where I understand veterans’ markers and flags are placed every Memorial Day just as here in Natick we now have flags and veterans’ markers to the 17 praying Indian Revolutionary War veterans from the Needham Leg.