The White Sachem: The Conversion of the Cape Cod Indians, and the Founding of Mashpee


By Garrett Gowen

Missionary activity in the American colonies during the seventeenth century was mainly an exercise of imperialism; the native savages had to be civilized by converting from pagan mysticism to the religion of the West: Christianity. However, when looking at Christian missionaries in the colonies, there is at least one anomaly: Richard Bourne. Bourne, who was a Cape Cod missionary, was not only an exceptionally effective missionary, he was a compassionate humanitarian centuries ahead of his time, who worked to integrate Christianity into their culture, not because he thought it would civilize them, but because he believed that it was necessary for their survival. As a result of his missionary teachings and humanitarian efforts, Richard Bourne achieved the conversion of many Mashpee Indians, facilitated the establishment of an Indian church, and earned a place within the Indian culture. This success was primarily due to his political advocacy, his unique approach to teaching, and his genuine concern for the Mashpee people.

Richard Bourne first arrived on Cape Cod in 1637; he migrated from England, and had originally settled in Plymouth, however he and a group of Plymouth families joined an expedition of ten landowners from Saugus who had received a charter to settle Cape lands (Lovell 7). The “Ten Men of Saugus” are historically known as the founders of the Town of Sandwich; Bourne quickly settled down on a large farm on the outskirts of the new town, and married a woman named Bathsheba Hallett, and became one of the most successful landowners in the town (Reynard 79). He was active in town and colony affairs; he served as a lay preacher with Thomas Tupper (one of the town’s founders), was appointed to a committee to get “difficult things done,” and in 1639, the year of the town’s incorporation into the colony, Bourne was elected as Deputy to Plymouth Colony’s first General Court (King 228).

In retrospect, Bourne was a very unlikely missionary at the outset of his public life; he was not an ordained clergyman, and he never appeared to be exceptionally active in religion of any sort (King 228-229). He was, however, very close to William Leveridge, Sandwich’s first pastor; there was a shortage of pastors in the new settlements of New England, and Leveridge, who had relocated from New Hampshire to Plymouth, was contacted by Edmund Freeman, the leader of the Saugus expedition (Lovell 25). Leveridge joined the group of Plymouth families (which included Bourne), and was made the minister of the new town (25). Over the course of the next decade, however, the defiant “scorn of Church authority” that was cropping up across the towns of the Colony began to grip the more liberal members of the Sandwich community; the growing prevalence of this view, in tandem with the expanding influence of the liberal Unitarians, and the increasing number of Quakers, led to a group of Sandwich freemen demanding the resignation of Leveridge (Lovell 36). He removed to Long Island in 1653 (King 229).

During his time as Sandwich’s pastor, Leveridge took up a limited scope of missionary activities when the “religious contention in early Sandwich overwhelmed him” (King 227). In 1652 and 1653, the Commissioners of the United Colonies (the group which oversaw funds for the Indian mission) approved allowances to Leveridge as incentive to learn the Indian language and commence work among the local natives (Lovell 36-37). He later wrote that the Indian language, “was easier to learn than Greek or Hebrew,” and in 1651, he estimated that about twenty Indians regularly attended his services (King 228). Over the course of his work, Leveridge observed that, “Indians were able to look beyond the specific failings of a few Englishmen in order to see the validity of Christianity;” he also noted that he wished, “more Englishmen were tolerant of the Indians” (229).

Following Leveridge’s 1653 removal, Bourne assumed his missionary activities (Cesarini 6). He too learned the Indian language, and began to acquire land lots abutting Indian territories; in the 1660 Plymouth Colony records, he is listed as owning six lots (King 229). Bourne’s intention was to establish a town reserved for the Indians, referring to it as the “Mashpee Kingdome” (Reynard 80). The first indication of this was a 1658 border agreement signed by the Mashpee Indian Chief Paupmunnock, in which the western boundary between the Town of Barnstable, and the Indian lands was shifted; the border decided upon is essentially the same today (Lovell 62). It was once said that, “half the populace loved Bourne, and the other half whispered that he intended to make himself monarch of a heathen empire” (Reynard 80).

Bourne first gained recognition among the Mashpee Indians during the famine of 1649, when he went among those suffering from an epidemic, and showed himself to be immune (Lovell 60). He prayed for the sick, prescribed cures for their ailments, and constantly comforted them; he was, “a doctor, nurse, architect, legal adviser, judge, teacher and minister all in one” (Reynard 81). He became known among his converted followers, which he called “Praying Braves,” as their “Little Father;” he allowed them to maintain their pow wows and war dances, as he believed that Christianity could be compatible with their way of life, and he did not think it was not his place to destroy their culture (81). During the 1649 famine, he would feed his Praying Braves throughout the winter with corn purchased at his own expense; in autumn, when he was repaid, he would purchase them supplies (81). He was a “super being” in the eyes of the Indians (81). This magical status put him on par with the sachems and medicine men, and essentially legitimized his preaching of Christianity; he was gradually able to supplant their mysticism with Christian belief. In time, he became known as “the White Sachem of Mashpee” (Reynard 79).

Bourne’s success was immediately apparent; the allowance paid to him for his work by the Commissioners of the United Colonies steadily increased from 1657 to 1672 (Lovell 60). His designs were beginning to come together; he had already begun assembling land for an Indian town, and he was beginning to train his Praying Braves as ministers and lay the groundwork for an Indian church. Concerned by Bourne’s extensive efforts, the Reverend John Cotton of Plymouth made a special trip to Sandwich to “reason with the missionising zealot;” after speaking with Bourne, and the Indian preachers “whom Bourne was training to lead their people,” and became convinced of Bourne’s wisdom (Reynard 80). Bourne’s teachings included teaching the Indians to read and write, as well as imparting knowledge to them about “white society: explaining white social structures, earning money, using technology, and organizing local government (Lovell 64).

In February 1665, Bourne presented a motion before the Plymouth Colony General Court:
Whereas a motion was made to this Court by Richard Bourne in the behalf of those Indians under his instruction, as to their desire of living in some orderly way of government, for the better preventing and redressing of things amiss amongst them my meet ad just means, this Court doth therefore…do approve of these Indians proposed…to have the chief inspection and management thereof, with the advice of the said Richard Bourne…it being always provided, not withstanding that what homage accustomed legally due to any superior sachem be not hereby infringed (Freeman 252-3).

This motion showed a plan for a new way of government, which would be administrated by the Indians themselves “on a permanent basis” (Cesarini 6). It recognized the legal authority of the sachems over their respective areas (Lovell 64). In December 1665, a “remarkable” deed from two Indians named Tookonchasen and Weepquish granted a large tract of land to be held in trust by a group of five Indians as a reservation for the “South Sea Indians,” another name for the Mashpee Indians (Lovell 65). The deed, which is said to be written in part by Bourne himself, was considered by the natives to be the real authority for the creation of Mashpee as Indian territory (65).

In 1666, Bourne called for a convocation of ministers and colonial officials, including Governor Thomas Prence, to hear the conversion narratives of a group of Christian Indians so that they may approve the creation of an Indian church:

A good number of Indians whom Mr. Bourne has been instructing were examined. They gave such an account of their knowledge and belief and of the impression the gospel had made on their hearts; and gave their relations with such affection as was extremely grateful to the pious auditory. The magistrates and ministers convened on the occasion received much satisfaction in what they has heard (Freeman 679).

The Court, while impressed by the work of Bourne, decided to delay their ruling on the church’s establishment:

Such was the strictness of those who conducted the business of the meeting that before they would countenance the advancement of these Indians to church fellowship, they concluded that their confessions should be written, and a copy sent to each church in the Colony for their inspection and approbation if they saw fit, so that if no objections should be offered, they might at a suitable time be permitted and encouraged to enter church fellowship (Freeman 679).

This bureaucratic holdup was eventually resolved, however, and the formation of the church was approved by the General Court.

In August 1670, Richard Bourne was ordained (see Appendix Figure 1.1) as the “praying Indians’ pastor” (Cesarini 8). The ceremony was performed by the Reverend John Cotton, whom Bourne had spoken with years before, and John Eliot, a fellow missionary known for his work among the Natick Indians (8). With his goals completed, Bourne devoted himself to his work as leader of the Christian Indians, and began training a successor to his position, an Indian by the name of Simon Popmoet (Freeman 680). In a 1674 letter to his friend Daniel Gookin, Bourne estimates “the number of praying Indians that do frequently meet together to worship in God” as being “ninety-five, of whom twenty-four can read and ten could write…Two only of the whole number can read English” (686). He laments, however, the irreligion of many, saying they “are very loose in their course, to my heart-breaking sorrow” (686).

In the years following the establishment of the church, Bourne, while still the spiritual leader, diminished his involvement due to his advancing age, essentially taking on the position of an elder statesman of sorts; he died in 1682 (Lovell 187). His Indian successor, Simon Popmonet, would serve in a ministry of forty years (Freeman 681).

At first glance, it would not be difficult for someone to review Richard Bourne’s history and simply define his motives as self-serving, imperialistic racial superiority; one would be rash in making such a statement. While Bourne may have been following in the colonial tradition, he did so with separate motives, most likely derived from his friend Leveridge; like Leveridge, he believed that the Indians should have received much better treatment from their new English overlords. He realized, however, what an implacable situation the Indians were in; despite the fact that they had lived on the land for centuries, they now had to live in a new scenario, where Europeans with mysterious ways ruled the land, whether they liked it or now. He believed that the Indians “should be educated…and given the necessary tools for their own protection and survival” (139).

He was determined to improve their condition, and he felt that preparing them for life in white society might be their best chance for survival; he believed the first step in such a venture was to “awaken their self-respect by establishing them in a community of their own” (Kittredge 43). To do this, he acquired land by his own means with the intention of establishing such a community, not out of an insatiable desire to own Indian lands; as H. Roger King puts it:

While it must be acknowledged Bourne acquired land outside of Mashpee, and that it would be incorrect to argue Bourne worked among Indians solely to gain their land, it is equally evident that the scene of his missionary activity and many of his land grants overlapped. It was, at least, a fortunate combination of altruism and practicality, with success at both levels. On the practical side, he was a prosperous landowner. On the altruistic side, he was Plymouth’s most successful missionary, eventually establishing the first formally gathered Indian congregation in the Colony (229).

Yes, there was personal benefit to gaining land; but as King notes, he had extensive lands outside Mashpee as well, including a large, prosperous farm back in Sandwich. Yet his use of land is not the only indicator of his motivations.

His unique method of teaching and preaching Christianity to the Indians, while clearly an effective one, was much different from other missionaries of the time. Unlike his colleague John Eliot, Bourne worker to integrate Christian beliefs into Indian culture, as opposed to Eliot’s complete transformation of Natick Indian culture (King 231). He was willing to allow the Indians to remain on their native lands, and strived to incorporate Christianity into their way of life, instead of mercilessly forcing it upon them (231). As one writer puts it, Bourne was “one of the few whites who cared” (Fawsett 139).

Bourne’s actions consistently showed that he cared about the welfare of the Indians. He willingly walked among their plague infested population, comforting them, rather than shrinking in fear or disgust. He taught them in tandem to his preaching, and tried to give them skills necessary to adapt to their rapidly changing world. He minimized the cultural invasiveness of his teachings, believing, as Leveridge did, that Indians were naturally able to see the validity of Christianity, and that they deserved much better treatment than they received. Bourne’s work had a positive impact on the Mashpee Indians; they willfully conferred upon him the title of the “White Sachem,” a title which carries immense honor in the Indian culture and which is rarely, if ever, bestowed upon whites. If anything, he was a remarkable man in the amount he achieved over the course of his lifetime; he is still remembered as a compassionate advocate for the Indian people in an old Mashpee rhyme:

“Richard is walking the Hills of Bourne
Crying for his Lost People;
So he will walk till the waters churn
Over the topmost steeple” (Reynard 85).

Works Cited
Cesarini, J. Patrick. “John Eliot’s “A Brief History of the Mashepog Indians,” 1666.” The William and Mary Quarterly 65.1 (2008).
Fawsett, Marise. Cape Cod Annals. Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1990.
Freeman, Frederick. The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of Barnstable County and of its several Towns Including the District of Mashpee in Two Volumes. Vol. Vol 1. Boston: Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1858.
King, H. Roger. Cape Cod and Plymouth Colony in the Seventeenth Century. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 1994.
Kittredge, Henry C. Cape Cod: Its History and their People. 2nd ed. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Lovell, R. A. Sandwich: A Cape Cod Town. 3rd ed. Sandwich, Massachusetts: Town of Sandwich, 1996.
Reynard, Elizabeth. The Narrow Land. 3rd ed. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

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