Historic America Reviews

Colonial Intimacies: A Revealing Look at American Indian Marriage in New England

80140100390110lHow did Puritan missionaries affect Native American marriage practices in colonial New England? How did Native Americans react to these changes? These are the questions Ann Marie Plane seeks to answer in Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England. From the diverse marriage practices of pre-1620, to Anglicized marriage of the late 1600s, to the partial reconstruction of “traditional” Indian marriage in the 1740s, American Indian practices were profoundly altered by Puritan evangelization and colonialism.

For American Indians living in New England, many aspects of their marriage practices changed, including polygamy and the distinction between elite and common marriages, divorce, the role of formal legal bodies, inheritance, notions of household, and even expected gender roles. By the time American Indians began to assert their independence by appealing to past notions of “traditional” marriage in a now English-dominated colony, it was difficult for them to determine what that looked like.

Ann Marie Plane cautiously explains there were no uniform practices among American Indian tribes, and that marriage practices were always in flux. She was able to find some generalities in primary sources, which were mainly generated by early explorers and missionaries. Clan affiliation and kinship were more important to Native Americans than the bonds between a husband and wife. The nuclear family did not form the foundation of American Indian society like it did for the English. There was also a distinction between common and elite marriage. Elites (tribal leaders) practiced polygamy, while most Indians had only one partner. Because many extended family members lived in a residence together, children were raised communally. Also, sexual activity prior to marriage was not taboo as it was in Puritan society.

Plane distinguished four types of marriage in Native American society: some marriages were arranged in childhood and some in adulthood, but both of these involved a dowry paid to the woman’s family. In the third and fourth types, a man and woman chose to marry by either having a public ceremony or by simply taking up residence with each other.

When Puritans first encountered native peoples, they imagined their marriage practices were wild and uncivilized. In their conversion efforts, Puritan missionaries focused on reforming and transforming American Indian marriage so that it would resemble Christian and English marriage, which was much more rigidly defined, religiously oriented, and central to English society. There were three main areas missionaries attempted to change: gender roles and notions of household, sexual mores, and divorce and inheritance. The Puritan missionaries succeeded in fundamentally changing American Indian marriage practices in all three areas, although they did not ultimately succeed in remaking them into an exact copy of Puritan practices.

Gender roles in marriage, according to Plane, was the area in which the Puritans had the most difficult time changing. While men were supposed to be the central authority in the household, establishing order and promoting religious life, it was often the case that Indian women who converted to Christianity had to take on this role due to war and disease. Puritan missionaries very quickly realized that they would have to accommodate this reality if they were going to affect change in other areas. This left the more independent role of women in pre-colonial Indian family life relatively intact. “It is Indian women, rather than Indian men, who introduce prayers, good order, and Christian practice into their families,” Plane argues.

Approximate distribution of Indian tribes throughout southern New England in about 1600. Wikimedia Commons.
Approximate distribution of Indian tribes throughout southern New England in about 1600. Wikimedia Commons.

Puritans were able to change at least one aspect of Native American gender relations within marriage. Although Plane is quick to point out that spousal abuse may have been a symptom of the collapse of Native American culture under colonialism, she does present evidence to suggest that there were no proscriptions against husbands behaving violently toward their wives in American Indian society. “Wife beating reportedly had been quite common among the Indians before their exposure to Christian teaching,” she claims. Puritan missionaries quickly established an Indian legal system among the converted in order to—among other things—discourage this practice.

In that way, English common law and Biblical codes were imposed on the relations between Native American men and women. These courts also attempted to enforce the nuclear family. They abolished polygamy and punished adultery. They made spousal abandonment a crime, and so an American Indian wife could pursue a legal case against her husband if he failed to provide for her.

A Puritan family.
A Puritan family.

Discouraging polygamy and encouraging married couples to live under the same roof was only half the battle. Puritans attempted to curb what they believed were numerous sexual improprieties. “Polygyny was seen as a special manifestation of the larger problem of sexual lust,” Plane argued. “Evangelists knew that unbridled lusts, realized in the crime of fornication… would doom the attempt to remake marriage practices.” Fornication and adultery became crimes, and Indian converts were encouraged to fully confess and repudiate their past licentiousness. Polygamy, easy separation, and liberal sexual mores, all accepted parts of American Indian relationships in pre-colonial times, became adultery, desertion, and fornication. Puritans encouraged Indians to feel as though their previous practices had been sinful, but abandoning those practices was not easy.

Divorce and inheritance were two areas in which Puritan and Christian-Indian courts took an active role. This concerted legal effort was fundamentally transformative to American Indian marriage because it uprooted entire lineages and disinherited many children. Although many American Indians continued to practice what the English recognized as common-law marriages, when it came to separation, those marriages proved complicated. Without a formal ceremony, a partner’s claim to inheritance, property, or money was tenuous in court. By the 1700s colonial courts demanded proof of a formal ceremony or cohabitation in litigation regarding marriage.

Colonial Intimacies shows that American Indian marriage practices adapted to changing circumstances, but did not change entirely. Plane reminds her readers that only a small number of elites practiced polygamy. The majority practiced serial monogamy, cohabitating with a succession of spouses, but many stayed with the same partner throughout their lives. As a result, changes brought about by Christian missionaries affected some more than others. The Puritan mission to transform the diverse marriage practices of Native Americans into English and Christian practices essentially failed, but as a result of that effort, American Indian marriage irreparably changed.

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