Not Everyone in Salem was a Puritan

Just a post-postscript to my earlier series of posts about witchcraft and Salem, Mass.

We tend to phrase the story of the 1690s as Puritans hunting “witches,” and it is true that members of the Puritan churches set the moral tone in most of New England.

Skull of a Scot killed in the battle of Dunbar. He was young, yet his teeth showed wear from smoking a clay pipe (the circled area). (Jeff Veitch, Archaeology magazine.)

But they were not the only colonists. Most came in the “great migration” of the 1620s–1640s, and most were middle-class people or skilled artisans.

And there were lots of indentured servants. Some of the “bewitched” girls fit that category.

Indentured servitude was sort of like slavery with a time limit — after a contracted period of time, say five or more years — the servants were to be given their freedom and a small bonus of money, a set of clothing, or something. In the meantime, they could be bought and sold.

Some came voluntarily. Others were prisoners of war, and some were vagrants, orphans, and street kids rounded up in English ports. One ancestor of mine shows on a ship’s passenger list as an unaccompanied 12-year-old boy, so he probably was already someone’s servant or else the ship’s captain planned to sell him on arrival.

During the Salem witch trials, therefore, there were a significant number of Scots ex-indentured servants in Massachusetts, former POWs (mostly teenagers) from Oliver Cromwell’s campaign against his former Scottish allies during the English Civil War, who were treated terribly after their side lost the battle of Dunbar.

I learned of them when reading about the discovery of a mass grave in English city of Durham, dating to 1650. Now there’s a plaque.

Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, was a real piece of work. He probably had more blood on his hands than did any actual English king.

Scottish POWs were sold (there is no other word for it) in New England, where a Puritan minister commented, “The Scots, whom God delivered into [Cromwell’s] hands at Dunbarre, and whereof sundry were sent hither, we have been desirous (as we could) to make their yoke easy. Such as were sick of scurvy or other diseases have not wanted physick and chyrurgery. They have not been sold for slaves to perpetual servitude, but for 6 or 7 or 8 yeares, as we do our owne [indentured servants] .”

Some lived and prospered, however, becoming respectable citizens, which was the difference between indentured servitude and what Cotton calls “perpetual servitude.”

Church history: the Puritans of the 17th century became the Congregational Church in America, which later helped to form the socially liberal (quite a switch) United Church of Christ—which, is however, declining in membership year by year, as are the other liberal “mainline” Protestant denominations.

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