i. Twilight of the Idols
In the town square of Salem, Massachusetts stands a bronze statue of my ancestor, Roger Conant. An imposing, imperious white man, Conant looks grimly out from beneath his tall pilgrim hat and his windblown cape. The monument itself offers only the briefest explanation of who Conant is or why he’s immortalized there, but his stern Puritan gaze projects an unimpeachable right to stand firm on his granite pedestal for all time, in perpetuity.
By the conventional view, I should be proud that a bronze statue memorializes my ancestor’s contribution to history. But it’s not that simple.
In June 2020, in the inspiring sweep of the Movement for Black Lives, a moment occurred where for several weeks statues of white men came crashing down all around. In the U.K., a British slave dealer was deep-sixed into Bristol harbor; in Birmingham, Alabama a Confederate sailor was thrown to the ground; Christopher Columbus was beheaded in Boston, toppled in Minnesota and Virginia and quietly removed by city officials in San Francisco. In Sacramento, John Sutter, a settler famous for sparking the California gold rush and for the enslavement and brutalization of Native Americans that enabled that massive undertaking, was hauled over by a cable. In Albuquerque, a man was shot by a white vigilante as a crowd shoved the conquistador Juan de Oñate from his plinth. In New Orleans, a high pedestal that held Robert E. Lee still stands empty years after Lee was removed – a monument to the question, who should stand there?
The toppling of monuments is a powerful and contentious act because it goes straight to the wounded heart of a nation that is and has always been divided. Those who are wounded, marginalized and outraged by the dominant society express their trauma by tearing down its idols; those who find comfort in the status quo rush to defend the Confederate generals, slave-dealers and Indian killers that adorn our cities and towns appalled by the threat of “erasing history.”
But tearing down statues is not erasing history. Turning public space into a stage to glorify the lives and normalize the acts of brutal men is erasing history. So how, at moments of sweeping social transformation, do we remake our cultural symbols and bend the arc of history just a little more towards justice?
In a sense, whiteness itself – the historical invention of a race of people purported to represent the apex of human evolution, a people whose unspoken and apparently natural “supremacy” is the product of a centuries-long propaganda campaign – is a kind of erasure. In the case of my own family history, it’s an erasure ten generations deep.
My ancestor Roger Conant wasn’t an imperial evangelist seeking gold and spices like Columbus, or a military figure like Robert E. Lee, or a punishing conquistador like Juan de Oñate. He was lesser known, not so important to history, and so of lesser consequence. Still, he stands watch over one of the sites where the divided history of our nation began. In a nation founded on the unimaginable violence of the slave trade and the systematic extermination of Native peoples, how do we distinguish between the legacies of brutal men who drove the bloodshed and those who merely benefited from it? And how can such distinctions orient us towards the muddled question of making reparations?
ii. Conant was a miller’s son
Conant was a miller’s son from a Devonshire village called East Budleigh in the southwest of England. The village, small though it was, had also given birth to Sir Walter Raleigh, the flamboyant privateer who landed at Virginia a generation prior. Conant’s village was just up the road from the port of Plymouth, where droves of Puritans shipped out across the Atlantic to settle the New World. With his wife and young son, Conant, a salter of fish by trade, left England in 1623 aboard a ship called the Anne, and two months later made land at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In the turmoil of the Protestant reformation, with England lurching towards civil war, there is truth to the notion that Puritans like Conant fled to the New World “seeking religious freedom.” But just as importantly, at a time when land in England was being enclosed by a growing capitalist class, a young tradesman like Conant would have fled, like so many immigrants do, towards a vague promise of land and security for his family.
On arrival across the Atlantic, Conant found Plymouth colony intolerant of any views beyond the strict separatism that united their congregation, and he quickly removed with a few other families to Plymouth’s outskirts and established a fishing outpost there. During his long life Conant went on to play a role in founding several settlements along the coast of what would become Massachusetts.
The little that’s written about him tells of “a pious, sober and prudent gentleman,” “moderate in his views, tolerant, mild and conciliatory, quiet and unobtrusive, ingenuous and unambitious, preferring the public good to his private interests.” An apprenticeship in London had taught him the art of preserving fish in salt and earned him the status of a freeman – he was not bonded into servitude like so many of his time, but neither was he a member of the owning class. In one reading of his life, which spanned the first fifty years of English settlement in what the Pawtucket called “the Dawn Lands,” he appears to have been displaced from every settlement he founded by men of more aristocratic stock who came to establish Massachusetts as the first of the original thirteen American colonies. But the details of these stories are murky, and contested.
The best-known story about him casts him in the role of peacekeeper. On a bronze plaque embedded in the granite rock of Gloucester, Massachusetts, you learn that Conant “averted bloodshed between two factions,” an act that the plaque calls “a notable example of arbitration in the beginning of New England.”
As the story goes, Conant had been charged with protecting property claimed as fishing and planting grounds by the Dorchester Company on Cape Ann, north of current day Boston, until bankruptcy proceedings back in England sorted things out. When he arrived at the site, men representing the Dorchester Company were attempting to carry off barrels of salt that were not legally theirs. At the same time representatives of Plymouth Colony led by Myles Standish – the pugnacious military captain known to us from tellings of the first Thanksgiving – were attempting to claim the Dorchester Company’s assets for Plymouth Colony.
As one group of Englishmen barricaded themselves behind barrels of salt and the other, led by Standish, threatened to open fire on them, Roger Conant intervened to read them the law, and thus postponed the dispute until it could be heard before an English court.The episode that informed the bronze plaque still found in Gloucester paints a picture of a level-headed man settling a property dispute. Nevermind whether the version on the plaque was accurate, or whether either party had any right to claim the place as their own, given the long history of Native settlement there. Of such episodes white history is made.
Shortly after, observing that the site at Cape Ann was too far from good fishing grounds and had poor soil for a plantation, Conant and his people packed up and walked, with the aid of an Indian guide, to a Pawtucket village at a place called Naumkeag, and established a settlement which they named Salem Village.
A few years after he’d established what became Salem Colony, an English aristocrat named John Endicott arrived and took over Conant’s duties as head of the settlement. The details of how this came about, let alone the motives and the powers at play, are murky – but the written histories affirm the telling I find today on Wikipedia: “Conant graciously stepped aside and was granted 200 acres of land in compensation.” Endicott went on to become the Governor of Salem, which joined with Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies to become the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which became the first of the Thirteen Colonies, which grew to become the United States of America.
My ancestor and his 200 acres of land became a footnote in history. But in the early twentieth century, three centuries after his landing, his descendants – my forebears – determined that Conant deserved more than a footnote and they erected a statue in what is now a traffic roundabout abutting Salem Common, just across from the Witch Museum, Salem’s most popular tourist stop.
I’ve found little of substance about Conant’s dealings with the people of Naumkeag. Any unwritten accounts – tales told or untold by the Pawtucket, the Wampanoag, the Nipmuc, the Abenaki, the Pocasset, the Narragansett, the Pequot and their ghosts during the fifty years when the native population of those lands gave way to tens of thousands of English colonists – died in situ or in the far-off West Indies where many were shipped off into slavery and oblivion.
If you visit the reconstructed historic Salem Village you can glean a few clues: Conant planted tobacco, corn and squash – one of the first plantings of native crops by an English settler. His home, one of the first English houses built in the New World, later occupied by John Endicott after he took command over Salem, was a hybrid of native mudded wigwam and English timber frame. These bits of evidence affirm what the Thanksgiving Myth also tells, though in a much whitewashed form – that my ancestor and his people survived thanks only to the goodwill of the natives and a willingness to adopt native lifeways.
An 1854 book, The Landing at Cape Anne, takes this perspective: “Governor Conant and his associates, in the fall of the year 1626, removed to Naumkeag, and there erected houses, cleared the forests, and prepared the ground for the cultivation of maize, tobacco, and the products congenial to the soil. In after years, one of the planters in his story of the first days of the colony, said, ‘when we settled, the Indians never then molested us, but shewed themselves very glad of our company and came and planted by us, and often times came to us for shelter, saying they were afraid of their enemy Indians up in the country, and we did shelter them when they fled to us, and we had their free leave to build and plant where we have taken up lands.’”
So it appears that, while there were occasional clashes, kidnappings, and killings, with the English being by and large the aggressor, the early years of settlement were marked by a tenuous peace. But for both the British and the Indians, it was a peace born of necessity – and it would very soon be shattered. It would turn out that the first generation of settlers maintained an alliance with the natives just long enough to establish a population that could come out on the winning side of the eventual massacre. During the Pequot War of the 1630’s the settlers began hunting down and killing Indians en masse. A generation later the English had grown a population into the tens of thousands, allowing them to spread across New England and begin reshaping the landscape writ large. By the 1670’s what became known as King Philip’s War forever shaped the settlers’ relationship with both the native people and the native ecology as a relationship of open and unmitigated violence.
iii. Braided Histories
My ancestor’s landing four centuries ago is where my story on Turtle Island begins. It is also where the genocide of the native peoples of North America was kicked into high gear. The history of my white ancestry and the history of genocide do not merely happen at the same time – they are braided together. They are the same story.
In the years just prior to the pilgrims’ landing, the Pawtucket and Wampanoag had been decimated by disease carried by other Europeans who’d come to fish the cod and trap the beaver. “They died in heapes as they lay in their houses,” wrote the merchant Thomas Morton, with the dying “left for vermin to prey upon.” By the time the Mayflower arrived in 1620, the natives’ coastal villages were, in the words of another writer, “a cemetery two hundred miles long and forty miles deep,” their villages empty, their fields abandoned, their bodies unburied. The Mayflower party themselves arrived ridden with pestilence, starvation, dissension and disease. The natives had good reason to believe that everything the English touched was marked by death and disease.
In 1620, a few years before Conant’s clan set foot at Naumkeag, William Bradford and the men of Plymouth Company stepped off the Mayflower, hungry and afraid. At first, they encountered no people, just “isles planted with corn, groves, mulberries, savage gardens and good harbors,” as Bradford wrote in Of Plymouth Plantation, his account of Puritan life in those years. After some days of hungry exploration, the pilgrims came upon fields and “new stubble, of which [the Indians] had gotten corn this year, and many walnut trees full of nuts, and a great store of strawberries…” Searching further, they uncovered “sandy pits in the earth filled with earthen pots,” “a bow and, as we thought, arrows, but they were rotten…”
Bradford and his men had unearthed what turned out to be graves. What they came upon next, and how they handled it, is of particular interest: “They found two of the Indians’ houses covered with mats, and some of their implements in them; but the people had run away. They also found corn, and beans of various colors. Those they brought away, intending to give full satisfaction when they should meet with any of [the Indians].”
In other words, the very first thing the pilgrim fathers did when they stepped onto the Dawn Lands was to dig up the graves of the recently dead and plunder the natives’ stores of food and seed. (They were, to be fair, desperately hungry.) And they took it as a sign: Bradford praised God for “sweeping away great multitudes of the natives, that He might make room for us,” and he gave all praise to Providence for providing them the corn, “for else we know not how we should have done.”
And so began one of the foundational myths of the United States: the story of how the English God removed the hostile Indians and gave the land that would become New England to white men to fulfill their destiny.
Some months after the grave-robbing incident, Bradford writes, the natives “came and made their peace and full satisfaction was given by the settlers to those whose corn they had taken.” From this I take it that Bradford wants us to believe that the pilgrims repaid the Indians’ corn. But colonial history written by the settlers rarely tells the whole truth, and I’m skeptical. Even if Bradford’s tale were true and the “debt” was repaid, from that ignoble beginning the settlers went on to incur more debt – blood debt – through centuries of merciless slaughter.
Conant wasn’t a part of the corn-thieving incident – as I noted, my ancestor arrived later. And the known incidents of Conant’s life – averting bloodshed with Myles Standish and moving on from Salem when John Endicott took over the colony – seem to illustrate that Conant was not a fighter. Still, what kind of peace do you propagate when, in the midst of an epidemic that your own people brought, you settle uninvited in someone else’s territory and proceed to make it your own?
By 1637, the Pequot to the south of Plymouth began to rebel (Bradford called them “unruly”). The settlers made war upon them and slaughtered hundreds. In the Mystic massacre in May, 1637 Connecticut colonists aided by Narragansett and Mohegan allies set fire to a Pequot Fort, shot anyone who tried to escape, and in the end killed as many 700 Pequot men, women and children. William Bradford designated a “day of Thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequot,” leading to persistent but contested speculation that this was one of the origins of our Thanksgiving. Roger Conant was 45 years old that year, established as a landed farmer, and had served in various high posts in the Massachusetts colonial government. He could not have known that the Pequot War, which began as an effort to establish a colonial settlement on the Connecticut River, would end with the complete extermination of the Pequot as a people.
It’s easy to forget that the violence wasn’t simply settlers-against-natives. The Narraganset, Mohegan and Eastern Niantic, enemies of the Pequot, were recruited by the British to join in the massacre – though contemporary accounts suggest they were shocked and horrified by English brutality. I can indulge in imagining that my ancestor the peacekeeper would also have been shocked by his compatriots’ brutality, but I find no written account to point one way or the other. Certainly Roger Conant, “tolerant, mild and conciliatory, quiet and unobtrusive,” would have been hard pressed to imagine that the merciless slaughter committed by the English would establish the template for the three centuries of bloodshed to come, as wave upon wave of immigrants from Europe undertook the relentless conquest of North America.
History is unconcerned with my ancestor’s perception of the events of his time, and it’s absurd to speculate what so foreign a mind may have thought. The simple fact is that he and his children helped set the terms of engagement for what happened and laid the foundation for what followed.
By the 1670’s the Pawtucket, Massachusetts and Wampanoag had ample evidence that the English planned to exterminate them as they had the Pequot. Massasoit’s son Metacomet, known to the English as King Philip, the Sachem of the Pokanoket tribe, laid plans to launch an open rebellion. But before Metacomet’s uprising could even get started, the settlers responded with an ever-escalating war that bloodied the salt marshes and clotted the estuaries with corpses. The conflict known as King Philip’s War marked the first all-out attempt at genocide by the English against the natives, and almost erased both the settlers and several native nations from this continent. At the end of the conflict, colonial authorities sent at least 1000 Indians as slaves to the West Indies. As author Nathaniel Philbrick puts it, “Fifty-six years after the sailing of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ children had not only defeated the Pokanokets in a devastating war, they had taken conscious, methodical measures to purge the land of its people.”
The 200 acres of Pawtucket land granted to my ancestor converted him from an itinerant Devonshire salter into a landed yeoman farmer – and, retrospectively, into an American – and would be the beginnings of a savings account that paid out for generations. At least one of Conant’s children, Lot Conant, fought in King Philip’s War. I find no record of what the rest of my ancestor’s clan was up to as violence engulfed their new homeland. But regardless of how they carried out their role in early American history, the Conant clan survived down the generations, while most of the native people of that time and place did not, and I’m the result of their survival.
The erasure of native bodies from what became New England was very nearly complete. And as went Massachusetts Bay, so went the nation. The “natives” – numerous, unindividuated – were as shadows to the conquering white settlers. Helpful shadows in the very beginning; later becoming violent, savage shadows; and still later quietly merged into the general shade of the forgotten past.
Were the old planters of Salem, as Conant’s people became known, unaware of the tremendous power they held simply by the force of their presence? Did their religious fervor, their worldview and their drive to establish settlements in this new-to-them land blind them to the harm they were doing? Vanishingly small as the chance is, did they at any moment resist or even oppose the violence? (After all, every generation throws up people of conscience, abolitionists, allies and white “race traitors,” who side with the oppressed.)
My ancestor was not as warlike as Myles Standish, as ambitious in nation-building as William Bradford, as consequential as Christopher Columbus or as guilty of the worst racist atrocities as Juan de Oñate and Robert E. Lee and the slave traders and Confederates whose statues are being toppled as I write. Nevertheless, my ancestor, and his children, and their children, established the bloody legacy of settler colonialism; they appropriated the land of the People of the Dawn and built the foundations of their nation on it. By their very presence they fed the myth of Manifest Destiny and by their lives they forged the fantasy of American exceptionalism and white blamelessness. I am their living heir. My two young daughters are their living heirs. And to my knowledge, my family has never yet given full satisfaction for the debt.
iv. Putting the Corn Back in the Ground
How do we confront the still-raw, ugly truths of history? And what does it mean to make reparations 400 years after the fact? It’s a question that bears no easy response – and any effort to confront the question usually involves passing first through guilt and shame before getting anywhere near a good answer. But that’s all the more reason to ask.
I once came up with a plan to travel to Cape Cod – most likely in the off-season with not so many tourists swarming the white sand beaches – and to put in the ground there sacks and sacks of corn that I will have grown with my own hands. No living person would benefit from my corn, but the restless ghosts of some ancestors – the ones dispossessed and possibly massacred of my own ancestors – might be fed. I can’t promise that I’ll ever carry out the plan, nor do I believe that such a symbolic gesture will pay a debt four centuries old. The erasure of a people is not undone through made-up rituals. But maybe reparations begins with understanding the nature of what you’ve stolen.
Just recently, the Mashpee Wampanoag – the surviving descendants of my ancestors’ enemies – faced an illegal Trumpish effort to take away the postage-stamp-sized bit of tribal land that the government had granted them. When I learned of their struggle I did what the Tribe asked via social media: on the night of their legal hearing I lit a signal fire on my back porch 3000 miles away in California. It was in one sense a tiny gesture – literally, the very least I could do. But by turning my attention to the struggle of a people I’ve never met nor known, and by making an attempt to carry out a ritual just as they had asked, I did something. It’s far from enough – again, the erasure of stolen land cannot be undone through symbolic gestures – but doing something beats doing nothing. In a way that I was not raised to do, I made an offering and a prayer, and you never know how prayers may land. However these things work, the Tribe won their court case – and I may one day be able to pay them a visit on their tribal land, if they’ll have me.
With an eye to the territories of the Wampanoag and the Pawtucket, another step toward reparations could be to maybe, just maybe, topple down that statue in Salem Common and send old Roger Conant back to sea.
Would such a gesture constitute erasing history? Here, the tale takes another twist: it turns out that the statue of Conant was modeled on a more famous sculpture, “The Puritan,” by Augustus St. Gaudens, in Springfield, Massachusetts. At least one historian suggests that the Salem statue was designed explicitly to send a conservative message to Salem residents: personifying the town’s origins in an arch figure of unflinching patriarchal authority was an intentional effort to shape perceptions of history at a time when “labor unrest provoked fears of mounting violence and radical political protest.” So, the bronze statue of my ancestor may not be a portrayal of an actual man erected to commemorate his role in the actual events of the historic past, but rather a symbol of a particular set of ideas erected to convey a specific meaning to the people of the future.
Well, and isn’t that what any monument is? History is not an immutable granite boulder but an intractably layered sediment shaped by the unceasing current of events. And the flow of that current is directed by the monuments we set in its path.
If the town wants a monument to its founders, maybe there’s a way to do it that reveals the lineaments of what actually happened, by whom and to whom, and at what cost to everyone. But for that a simple statue won’t do. Maybe Roger stays, but new monuments go up all over town – monuments to the people whom white history has sought to drive into oblivion. More is known about the sachems, or traditional leaders, of that territory, than you might suspect; the public spaces of coastal Massachusetts could accommodate public monuments to individuals like Metacom, Massasoit, Masconomet – the Sagamore of Naumkeag and Agawam at the time my ancestor was in Salem Village – or Weetamo (a female Sachem about whose central importance historian Lisa Brooks has written a stunning recent history).
But even that is unsatisfying. The erasure of entire cultures isn’t undone by memorializing them in bronze. Putting up a monument to Metacom, Masconomet or Massasoit won’t heal the wounds of genocide any more than naming a street after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. absolves the nation of his murder. But at least it gives their memories a home.
Black Lives Matter teaches us that meaningful action can begin with such a gesture to say their names, to maintain a collective memory of the victims of society’s violence. But action toward reparations must also involve supporting ongoing struggles for truth and reconciliation in the places where we live. For me that can mean supporting a movement to reclaim a native burial site, or paying a voluntary land tax for living on traditional Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone territory. But again, make no mistake: while there may be beauty in attempting to work out how to pay an unpayable debt, the erasure of a people is not repaired by making donations.
And it’s always good to provide material support and solidarity to more militant struggles like the one that erupted a few years ago at Standing Rock or as I write in Canada in the territory of the Wet’Suwet’en, or in Chiapas, Mexico where the Zapatistas’ struggle for land and dignity erupted almost thirty years ago and is likely to continue far into the unforeseeable future. Like struggles for Black Lives, for migrant justice, for criminal justice reform, struggles for indigenous sovereignty are everywhere, and any white person who wants to support them can find myriad ways to do so.
But even joining in frontline struggles is not a way to repair our collective past – it’s a way to fight for our common future.
Perhaps any serious attempt at reparations begins by asking why injustices persist, and how the generational privilege of some is bonded to the generational trauma of others. It begins by touching the wounds – ours and theirs, whoever we and they are, – and by metabolizing the trauma of a history where both the oppressor and the oppressed are dehumanized.
The new science of epigenetics examines how trauma is passed down from one generation to the next. Coupled with a clear-eyed analysis of the long theft of land and the massive social inequality built into our legal, political and economic systems, epigenetics goes a long way to explain why the descendants of people who were brutalized under slavery and genocide continue to suffer today. Author and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem suggests that because we all inhabit bodies and because we all live in relation to one another and to the larger histories from which we descend, intergenerational trauma doesn’t work only on the lineage of the oppressed, but on the lineage of the oppressor as well. It’s systemic, and its embodied, and its everywhere.
That’s a hard pill to swallow – but the good news is that Menakem, a therapist, offers some practices to begin to change at a cellular level, and his work informs and is informed by a movement that will continue to grow and give us a greater chance of metabolizing our collective wounds.
In order to uproot racism we need to think generationally, and to act as if what we do individually and collectively changes the course of history – because it does. It takes a lifetime of conscious acts to transform not only our behaviors, but our beings. Join to that an effort to learn the ecologies of a place and a time – to learn our origins – and perhaps you have the beginnings of healing. In my case, this means seeking to understand the stories of the past erased by my people’s misbegotten arrival on Turtle Island, and acting to change the stories that will be received by the people of the future.
We can’t undo history, but we can learn our place in it. By knowing such histories, by scrutinizing them to find the parts we no longer want to hold onto, and by putting our real shoulder to the task of gaining liberation for all peoples, we may create the soil in which a true reparation can grow. If a few statues need to move to free the ground for planting, then so be it.