Remember “PSNA” (Puritan State of North America)

Left: First Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630. Right: Contemporary State Seal of Massachusetts

This article originally appeared in the Dorchester People for Peace Update, November 27, 2015

Most of us have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving.  On the one hand, it has become the family holiday par excellence, when adult children return home and relatives we don’t often see are invited to the feast,  On the other hand, most readers of the Update are well aware of the dual nature of the holiday.  While Thanksgiving celebrates what we are grateful for in our family life, it also marks the 


historical process that concluded with genocide and expropriation of indigenous lives and lands.  For Native people, the Thanksgiving has long been marked as a day of mourning.

But there is another aspect of the history which we generally ignore – and that is highly relevant when we are flooded with propaganda about the religion-fueled atrocities of groups like ISIS in the Middle East, now spilling over into “our” cities like Paris.  The Plymouth Plantation, site of the supposed first Thanksgiving and later Puritan Boston were also communities motivated by religious fanaticism and were the spiritual ancestors of the Christian fundamentalism that motivates a substantial portion of our population, especially at the base of the Republican Party.


The Puritan “Pilgrims” may themselves have been refugees from religious persecution, but that did not stop them from imposing their own brand of intolerance in their New England colonies and toward the native peoples. They saw themselves as modelled on the Exodus and subjugation of “the Promised Land” and they imposed, along with the conquest, their own brand of religious fundamentalism.  The Puritan movement was imbued with biblical imagery, especially from the Hebrew scriptures (“Old Testament”).  If John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill” was morally related to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the other “hill” of Zion was not far from their minds.  That’s why there are towns of Salem (a variant of Jerusalem) in most New England states, along with Canaan, Bethel/Bethlehem, Goshen, Lebanon.

They also imposed their own strict version of biblical law (Shari’a!) to regulate all manner of public and private life.  The capital crimes in the colonies – led by “blasphemy” – were given biblical footnotes in the first and subsequent printed law codes.  Long before the famous “witch trials” of 1692-3 four members of the colony were hanged for the crime of being Quakers.

MarchIndigenous resistance, meanwhile, was met with open terror from the earliest days of the colony.  When the last revolt against the invaders was defeated in 1975-6 the colonists displayed the head of native leader Metacomet (“King Philip”) on a stake in Plymouth.  Other native settlements – even Christian ones — were destroyed and the inhabitants held in a kind of concentration camp on Deer Island and later sold as slaves in the British West Indies. 

These measures highlighted the irony on the first Great Seal of the colony, which pictured a stereotypical native voicing the plea “Come over and help us.” 

It is still the model of the contemporary seal of our state, which includes the Latin motto:

“By the sword we pursue a calm repose under liberty.”