Raising questions, reclaiming history: A visit with Amherst professor and Lisa Brooks on her new book

  • Lisa Brooks. Photo by John B. Weller


For the Bulletin
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The story of King Philip’s War, which ended 440 years ago, may be central to the history of the Connecticut River Valley, marked in locations like King Philip’s Hill in Northfield, the Bloody Brook Battle monument in Deerfield, and even King Philip restaurant in Phillipston. The three-year armed conflict is largely blamed on attacks on colonial settlers by Wampanoags and other native “savages.”

But “Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War” (Yale University Press), the second book by Lisa Brooks, an Amherst College associate professor of English and American Studies, depicts the prolonged war on a dozen settlements throughout much of the region as far more complex — the result of mistaken assumptions that English settlers made about the native tribes.

What’s more, “Our Beloved Kin” draws on written letters and other materials written by those Indians, who were thought to have been illiterate. Her creative, readable telling doubles as a relevant and timely interpretation of their history; it also resonates today, with the plight of refugees around the world and racial profiling.

Her book traces the interwoven paths of three characters: Wampanoag leader Weetamoo, who as a woman is less known than Metacomet (aka King Philip); James Printer, the persecuted Christian Nipmuc and scholar/teacher; and Mary Rowlandson, the Puritan woman whose own account of her capture in Lancaster is recast in this deeper interpretation.

Brooks, who is Abenaki (she also has Polish heritage), began learning about the indigenous history of the region when she worked in the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi’s Vermont tribal office while finishing her undergraduate degree at Goddard College. That research, on native rights and land-preservation cases, helped her to see a stark reality: For most people, it is surprising to learn that there are still “Indians” in New England. In 2008, she published her first book, “The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in New England” (University of Minnesota Press).

“The illusion in New England was that all these people disappeared,” she said recently, in her kitchen, with its view of the woods. “But the reality is that these people have remained … and know those places like nobody knows those places.”

Brooks also learned then of the vast array of existing written deeds, historical accounts and even collective petitions to the King by indigenous people. She found archives of written accounts by Indians, some of whom — such as Nipmuc scholar James Printer — prepared for training at preparatory schools. Some went onto Harvard Indian College, established as part of the college’s 1650 charter in an effort to convert native people to Christianity. The college effectively taught children of leaders to spread literacy among others in the tribe. And Brooks turned to documents at the Massachusetts Archives and the Massachusetts Historical Society, as well as the vast Native American Literature Collection at Amherst College, where she arrived in 2012, after teaching in the humanities at Harvard.

“What shocked me, when I decided to go to graduate school at Boston College, was that my professors believed there were no sources,” said Brooks, who later earned her Ph.D. at Cornell University. “I realized, ‘Oh my God, people don’t even know native people are still here — they don’t realize how present they are in the historical record, they don’t realize native people are writing about the most pressing issues people are talking about, even when we’re talking about environmental issues. 

“A lot of my research came out of that moment of disjunct,” she continued, “where for me native history was at the very center of American history and American literature. There was a sense of dissonance.”


“Our Beloved Kin” began as the story of James Printer and his three brothers. All were converted Christians; all were drawn into the conflict between colonists and Wampanoags, Nipmucs, Naragansetts and Pocumtucs that began just 55 years after Plymouth’s settlers had been welcomed in a spirit of peace by Metacomet’s father, Massasoit.

“I did not intend to write a book about King Philip’s War,” Brooks said. “I got to talking with people in the Nipmuc community about James Printer. This is an amazing story about four brothers who got caught up in the war … Most people, the war arrives, and you suddenly have to figure out how you and your children and your relatives and the people you care about — how you’re going to survive.”

Printer, along with his brother Job, became a teacher in Nipmuc communities, and a typesetter at Harvard Press, as well as a translator there for its bilingual Bible. While in what is now Marlborough, Printer and other native men were accused of taking part in an attack on settlers in Lancaster, even though there was no evidence, and they were later found in trial to have been attending church when the attack occurred.

“What James Printer goes through during this war is almost unthinkable,” said Brooks. Accused of murdering English settlers, he was part of a group of “Christian Indians” who were led, with ropes around their necks, to prison in Boston, where a lynch mob gathered. After about a month, they were tried, and he was found innocent.

Along with his brother Job — who had served as a scout for colonial troops, traveling 80 miles on snowshoes at one point to warn of a later impending Lancaster raid — he faced a mob mentality that “all the Indians must just be going rogue,” said Brooks. “The English are thinking with a racial logic: ‘All the Indians are going to band together.’ But there’s no such concept here. There’s no sense that we’re all the same race, because race didn’t exist for them. For them, what was more important: What are your kinship relationships? What are your alliances?”

Silent voices

Another story in the book also reflects the difference between the standard narrative and Brooks’ history. It’s about the battle that happened just south of Deerfield’s Mount Sugarloaf — the hills were then known as the Great Beaver — that began hostilities in the Kwinitekw valley in August 1675.

Despite generally good relations between the native people at Nonotuk, the upland north of Northampton and south of Hadley, an attack at Quaboag — now the Worcester County community of Brookfield — caused fear that they would be the next settlement hit by their Indian neighbors. A contingent of Massachusetts forces convinced settlers to launch a surprise dawn raid to confiscate all Nonotuk firearms, which natives used for hunting.

“This was on the verge of the fall hunting period,” said Brooks. “And even today, we know that some  native families are dependent on hunting to get through the winter. For some people, not having access to firearms led to starvation. The [colonists] were thinking of it as military disarmament, but to native people, it was about subsistence,” and they fled north, to relatives in Pocumtuc (Deerfield) and Squakheag (Northfield) — pursued by 100 members of the Massachusetts colonial forces.

The confrontation, at the foot of the hills described by the Pocumtuks as Ktsi Amiskw, the Great Beaver, had symbolic significance for the natives, who’d long told a traditional story about a figure known as the Great Beaver, who hoarded resources by backing up the river with its dam, and the Great Transformer, Hobbomock, which restored the balance by battling with the beaver — and eventually breaking its neck to let the water flow again.

“The native story goes back thousands of years, and in some ways it’s about creation of what is now native Glacial Lake Hitchcock and its dispersal, becoming the Connecticut River,” said Brooks. “For me, this is incredibly symbolic.”

Brooks also finds symbolism in how these battles later were marked, memorializing slain settlers, but overlooking the natives’ perspective. In the case of a memorial to Capt. Richard Beers, along Route 63 in Northfield, for example, there’s no mention of its location being on native planting fields, and, Brooks said, “no memory of the native women who planted there.”

While Philip’s sister-in-law, Weetamoo, is well known among the Wampanoags and Nipmucs as a leader in her own right, most standard tellings recount her depict her as a minor player. Or they convey her as a woman wavering between two sides — wringing her hands trying to decide whether to join Metacomet or to help Plymouth Gov. Winslow, who sought her neutrality. Brooks says she tried to present a much fuller picture of a strong negotiator and diplomat, skilled at building alliances and on guard against “deed games” played by colonists trying to grab land.

Ultimately, the kinship network prevailed, and King Philip sought and received refuge with Weetamoo before the colonial forces found him. When Plymouth Colony forces finally arrived at his village, said Brooks, “all they found were some pigs and dogs,” Brooks said.

In early March 1676, Weetamoo was part of a group of women — including Puritan captive Mary Rowlandson — along with children and elders, all pursued by colonial forces across the freezing-cold Paquaug River, now the Millers River in Athol. In Rowlandson’s account — which was printed at Harvard Press by Printer, who also helped negotiate her release — the women used dead wood to build a raft and cross the river, building camp on the other side as they headed north.

The same day that they crossed, she reported being astounded that the colonial army was unable to follow across. The women were saved by their resourcefulness.

Making connections

​​​​​​“Our Beloved Kin,” 10 years in the making, is accompanied by a companion website — ourbelovedkin.com — that was created with Brooks’ research assistants and colleagues at Amherst through Five College Digital Humanities to include many of the photos, maps, documents and side stories that couldn’t fit in the 448-page print edition.

Brooks, who will take part in a March 14 program at Northampton’s Forbes Library, as well as in a Historic Deerfield panel discussion April 28, says, “It was really difficult to research and write, to confront this violence. It was painful. But I had to do it because there were things I needed to learn.”

The author, who’s likely to face the same criticism of revisionism that authors like Howard Zinn and Jill Lepore have, explains: “I don’t want this to be a definitive history of King Philip’s War. What I really want is for this book to raise questions for people. Ideally, people would make connections to issues that are going on now.”