Review of Swindler Sachem

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Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Swindler Sachem: The American Indian Who Sold His Birthright, Dropped Out of Harvard, and Conned the King of England (Yale University Press, 2018).

Dr. Pulsipher is one of the most serious and interesting of the historians of the early American colonial period and of Native histories. In this accomplished study, she tells the story of a notorious but little understood seventeenth-century Nipmuc man named John Wompas (sometimes called “White” in the sources, with all the complexity and confusion about ethnic and tribal identities that such surnames imply). Historians have known Wompas (often as Wampus) for many years based on his presence in Boston and his brief tenure at Harvard College. Until Pulsipher’s detective work in the archives and this resulting biography, though, little was known about the details of his life and of his wife.

Exemplifying recent trends in academic and popular history—studying people who have previously been largely if not wholly absent from the records, being open to new types of sources, and bringing new levels of sympathetic speculation to flesh out the stories—Pulsipher takes us on a thrilling ride through affidavits, petitions, real estate records, royal audiences in England, Harvard class lists, and even doodles in a textbook to try to flesh out the stories that will make sense of this enigmatic man and his life.

While Pulsipher is eager to get the story of John and his wife Ann Prask more securely into the history books, she does not ignore the marks of Wompas’s failings. Wompas, we realize, is a bit of a sleaze. He treats Ann poorly, he cheats as often as he breathes when it comes to land transactions, and he constantly misrepresents his relationship to his people. He is a restless man who never saw a paycheck he couldn’t squander. But he’s also a thoughtful and resourceful man making the best of his existence between Native and English identities. If we can trust Pulsipher’s conjectures—and chances are good in my view that we can—then Wompas was a lot of fun to be around, the life of the party, a raconteur. (If he were Anglo-American, we would call him a confidence man, but we sense that there is more going on here than just the narcissist’s desire to exploit others’ trust.) We aren’t in any particular hurry to condemn him, and Pulsipher helps us pause to understand better. We realize just how radically awful a predicament Natives were often in during their encounters with European colonists. And we admire Wompas’s ability to make himself a witting pawn in disputes between crown and colony, even if we sometimes wince both at him and on his behalf. The Wompas we meet is bright and resourceful and even sympathetic, in spite of his failings.

Through the story of Wompas and Prask, we understand more about the nature of life in colonial America. We realize that many of the terrible interactions between English and Native groups (and among Native groups after the English occupation) were dominated by a combination of the color of law and miscommunication both accidental and deliberate. Wompas seems to have seen himself as called (perhaps by God) to be the liaison between Nipmuc and the English. We also see the role that war plays—wars among an array of Native and European groups—in breaking up relationships across all scales, in disrupting the socially sanctioned ties to land so essential in times of nutritional subsistence, in shaping and breaking ethnic and personal identities.

And our hearts ache at the plight of his wife Ann Prask. Orphaned by war, she ended up a servant/slave in an Anglo-European household. Perhaps because they were both ethnically liminal folk, she and Wompas wed. As best we can tell (and as we might expect for the time) there is in evidence little of the companionate romance we now expect from marriage. And ultimately Wompas seems to have deserted her; she died without him by her side. While her story is even less documented than her husband’s, we nevertheless get a little more of a sense of her fascinating life, for which we readers are grateful.

The other image that sits with me at the end of the book—so devoted to real estate transactions and the shifting scope of land underfoot—is this sense of geographical transience that haunts us all. I think of Patty Griffin’s folk hymn, “Mother of God” in which she pictures a woman preparing to leave a house now stripped of furniture. As she wears footprints into the wood, she thinks of those “who’ve been here before and gone on their way.” We leave traces of ourselves in these homes, these little plots of land, these settlements, and they carve stories in us. We are not the first to walk this land and we will not be the last. As a Latter-day Saint, these observations resonate with my sense of the spirit of Elijah, the sense that part of what knits our hearts together with those who have come before is the fact of our being located in space. We make our way across the earth’s surfaces together. I am glad that Jenny Hale Pulsipher has introduced me to a couple more people with whom I can walk when I feel that antique connection deep in my soul. Brava.

 

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I appreciate your musings here, Sam. Thanks for the pointer.

  2. Kristin Brown says:

    Fascinating. I enjoyed your review enough to seek out the book. Love history.

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