“Their learning is very little or none, Poets they are . . .”
“They acknowledge a God . . . but worship him they do not . . . because (they say) he will do them no harm.”
In 1638 and again in 1663, English gentleman-physician John Josselyn sailed up and down the coastline of northeastern America, exploring the region’s rivers and interior mountains. He did so to study the area’s flora, but he also began documenting the history and culture of the area’s colonial population as well as the Indians living there. An Account of Two Voyages to New-England Made During the Years 1638, 1663 was a compilation of his observations of the people and wilderness in which he spent several years. His Account also included a frank observation of Indian tribes, their ideals, religious notions, and cultural norms, as well as the afflictions to which the arrival of Europeans had exposed them, particularly smallpox.
John Josselyn was primarily interested in studying nature when he first arrived in seventeenth-century New England. He first arrived in 1638, staying with his brother, who was well connected to the Massachusetts Bay colonial government, and paying his respects to senior regional leaders before embarking on his two exploratory trips into the New England wilderness. During his travels, he visited the villages in and around Boston, along the Maine coastline, and far into the interior of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Josselyn was in search of scientific samples of various flowers and plants that he believed to hold medicinal qualities. Many of the areas to which he traveled, such as the White Mountains in New Hampshire, were as yet unexplored by Europeans. Josselyn’s interest in locating new medicinal plants, coupled with his desire to visit with his brother, who lived along the coast near these regions, led Josselyn to the colonies.
During his first visit to America, from 1638 to 1639, Josselyn developed a comprehensive catalog of the plant life in this area. On his second trip, which lasted eight years, he ventured up and beyond the largest mountain in New England—what is now called Mount Washington—into a wilderness few foreign-born people had ever seen.
In addition to his exploration of the wilderness and his collection of plant samples, Josselyn wrote about the encounters he had with American Indians. A large number of them were afflicted with smallpox, a deadly disease that came to America’s shores with Christopher Columbus’s 1492 landfall. His anthropological observations were frank and reactive, not dissimilar from the manner in which he documented plants and other natural items he found during his journeys.
In his Account, Josselyn offers a critical viewpoint in analyzing the culture of the various Indian tribes with which he came into contact. He discussed their religious traditions in comparison to his own Christian ideals. Josselyn also described their intelligence, observing their language patterns and mathematical skills in addition to their hunting practices.
Josselyn’s Account of Two Voyages to New-England was a follow-up to one of his best-known pieces, New-England Rarities Discovered, a comprehensive book of the plants and flowers of Massachusetts Bay Colony. His work was seen as a necessary examination of the natural history of the New England wilderness as well as a personal account of the Indians with whom he interacted during his travels.
Born in 1608 in Essex, England, John Josselyn was a member of the wealthy family of Sir Thomas Josselyn of Kent. He was primarily interested in medicine and botany, which led him to the study of using plants for their medicinal qualities.
Josselyn’s brother Henry had taken up residence in Black Point, Maine (now Scarborough), and in his correspondence described a land that was largely unexplored by settlers and teeming with animal and plant species that had never before been seen by Europeans. Josselyn, excited by his brother’s descriptions, sailed for America in the spring of 1638. This visit lasted fifteen months, beginning with meetings with many Massachusetts Bay colonial leaders, including Governor John Winthrop, a colleague of his Henry’s.
By this time, Josselyn had become proficient in his ability to develop medicines from the flowers, plants, and trees he encountered and noted numerous native herbal remedies in his travels. Among the concoctions he lauded were tobacco-based medicines and a filler substance consisting of the plant hellebore to be used in tooth cavities. While he continued his research, Josselyn also sought samples for his own experimentation in order to understand their properties and potential uses.
Josselyn’s second visit to New England, in 1663, was much longer, lasting eight years. During this trip, however, in addition to a continuation of his review of the flora and fauna of New England, Josselyn began to experience difficulties with the colonial communities in which he stayed. Local law required that he attend church services, but Josselyn failed to do so. The strict Puritan church leaders therefore looked unfavorably upon him, an attitude that Josselyn reciprocated. In his writings, he turned a strong critical eye toward Puritan tradition and culture. His willingness to understand indigenous culture outside of the Puritan worldview is evidence of such a mentality.
In 1672, Josselyn wrote and published one of his best-known pieces, New-England Rarities Discovered, and followed it up two years later with An Account of Two Voyages to New-England. The latter did not receive as much acclaim, largely because Josselyn’s disdain for Puritanism was not popular among readers. Josselyn died not long after Account of Two Voyages was published.
John Josselyn’s An Account of Two Voyages to New-England provides an analysis not only of the many different natural wonders of seventeenth-century America, but also of the people who dwelled there. At the time, the Massachusetts Bay colony was enormous, spanning as far west as Springfield and to the northernmost reaches of Maine. During Josselyn’s fifteen-month visit starting in 1638 and his eight-year adventure that began in 1663, he traveled throughout this vast region, encountering a wide range of American Indians, including the Wampanoags and the Penobscots.
An Account of Two Voyages served as an expansion on his better-known book, New-England Rarities Discovered. In the latter work, Josselyn described the myriad flora and fauna that could be used to treat diseases and other medical conditions. For example, he cited the use of a particular plant to treat one of the most common afflictions facing people crossing the Atlantic—scurvy. New-England Rarities Discovered was critically acclaimed for Josselyn’s scientific discoveries, which were warmly received by the medical community. An Account of Two Voyages expands on Josselyn’s experience, providing a view of the New England topography and wilderness that produced such resources.
Furthermore, An Account of Two Voyages describes Josselyn’s interactions with the American Indians living in the area he explored, taking into account the differences in social, cultural, and religious practices that existed between Europeans and these tribes. He proceeds in his analysis of these peoples in a similar manner as he would to describe different types of flowers or plants—classifying appearances and behavior in a scientific and critical light.
One of the first elements he notices is the impact European explorers had on the Indians nearly two hundred years prior. Specifically, he observes the devastation caused by smallpox, a disease he says arrived with Columbus and his expedition in 1492 (later scientific studies would date the disease’s arrival in the New World from 1507). Josselyn points out the fact that Europeans were used to a multitude of diseases, but that among American Indians, there were fewer such ailments. Josselyn, a doctor and scientist by profession, next provides an in-depth analysis of the epidemiology (spread) of the ailments that the explorers brought to America’s shores. Josselyn argues (incorrectly) that smallpox likely originated in the Caribbean, where the “proper” climate fostered it. He contends that Columbus returned to Naples, Italy, with Indians from Hispaniola who were infected with smallpox and then these people came into contact with the French and Italians. Over the course of more than two hundred years, Europeans spread smallpox and other diseases among themselves—when they arrived in North America, these diseases came with them, quickly afflicting the Indian populations. Smallpox, according to Josselyn, “hath taken away abundance of them.” (It is now understood that Europeans brought smallpox to both North and South America.)
Some Indians, Josselyn writes, lived as long as one hundred years without exposure to the types of diseases that arrived with the Europeans. Smallpox was not the only disease to travel with the explorers, although it was among the most deadly—indeed, mumps, consumption (tuberculosis), and even the bubonic plague are among the extraterritorial diseases that Josselyn cites in his account.
Josselyn suggests that the Indians were poorly equipped to treat such illnesses when they reached epidemic proportions. He says that Indian medicine men and priests used charms and basic medicines in addition to other treatments. For example, when faced with contagious diseases such as smallpox and plague, Josselyn describes the practice of lighting a fire inside of a wigwam (a native dwelling) and sealing a patient inside, with the hope that the individual would simply sweat out the infection.
Josselyn makes these observations of Indian medical practices within the context of a study of Indian culture. When faced with death, he comments, Indians are unconcerned with the notion of hell, a major Christian concept from which Josselyn’s viewpoint stemmed. He notes the dead are sometimes buried but may also be left above ground in various rituals. Mourning the dead, he observes, does occur, with survivors asking the evil forces that took their loved ones not to take any others.
Here, Josselyn describes a somewhat amalgamated version of traditional Indian religion and their exposure to European Christian ideals. The Indians with whom Josselyn came into contact believe in God, although they do not necessarily pray to him. According to An Account of Two Voyages, because the notions of Christian-style prayer were largely foreign to them, the Indians chose only to interact with either God or the devil when they are afflicted with poor fortune such as disease or other hardships. As Josselyn indicates in his discussion of the many diseases with which the Indians seemed to be afflicted, the devil (“Abbamocho” or “Cheepie”) frequently causes them harm through illness and terrifying images. The devil, according to Josselyn, therefore obliges these people to worship him in order to stop his attacks.
Josselyn cites the testimony of Indians who witnessed such supernatural events. At times, the devil would appear to Indians in the form of a flying Englishman, wearing traditional Puritan clothes (stockings, hat, and coat) and soaring above the camp. In other incidents, the devil appeared as a fellow Indian, appearing before others in a wigwam in order to frighten them. Josselyn himself claims to have seen a supernatural event—an unexplained flame that preceded the death of either an Englishman or an Indian—late one night.
In his analysis of the relationship between the Indians and God and the devil, Josselyn takes a critical look at some of the Indians’ religious practices. One of the key figures in addressing the diseases and other afflictions facing the Indians is the “powaw,” or “pow wow,” medicine man. This shaman, according to Josselyn’s account, leads the group in animated dances and sacrifices. According to Josselyn, such performances give the people the strength to withstand the devil’s afflictions.
The notion of Indians as “devil worshippers” was not uncommon at the time. In fact, the people of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony were highly preoccupied with the notion that the devil was trying to afflict their society. Two decades after Josselyn wrote An Account of Two Voyages, this fear came to a head in Salem, when more than 150 people were accused of witchcraft. Warring tribes of Indians played a major role in fostering this paranoia—occasional attacks against the colonists in remote parts of the colony, coupled with the Puritans’ fear of native non-Christian rituals, fueled the colonists’ view of the Indians as witches and devil worshippers.
Although he paints a picture of the Indians as frightened worshippers of the devil, Josselyn does acknowledge that the Indians with whom he came in contact understand the concept of life after death. When asked what happens when a person dies, Josselyn recalls, an Indian would point to heaven—in the sky above the peaks of the White Mountains. He adds that Indians die “patiently,” in light of the fact that although they believe in God and the devil, they do not necessarily believe in hell and therefore do not fear losing their soul to eternal damnation.
Josselyn also finds common ground with the Indians in their myth of the Great Flood. Like the biblical Noah, he recounts, a great powwow who foresaw the impending flood took to the White Mountains with his family. He brought with him a single rabbit. As they waited for the waters to recede, he let loose the rabbit. When the animal did not return, the powwow knew that the animal had found food and shelter, which meant that it was safe to come down from the mountain. After the flood, the powwow and his group began rebuilding the human race.
It is believed that Josselyn entertained himself with exposure to the fantastic. As he traveled to America on the ship New Supply, he claimed to have witnessed St. Elmo’s fire (a glowing light that sometimes precedes lightning), mermen, and other unusual creatures. When he embarked on his travels throughout Massachusetts, he quickly immersed himself in the area’s folklore and legends so that he might witness for himself these marvelous sights.
Josselyn’s reference to this story of a great flood underscores what he saw as the importance of oral tradition in Indian culture. This story’s basis is unknown, according to Josselyn, as it was handed down from generation to generation (“from Father to Son”). Oral tradition, in which stories and information are passed through generations via the spoken word rather than through paper- or stone-based documents, played a key role in Indian society.
The author further comments on the Indians’ apparent lack of a formal education, although he suggests that they possess a strong gift for the spoken word. During formal speech, he notes, the last word of a line rhymes with the last word of the following line—a rhymed couplet. Furthermore, Josselyn says, the fact that verbal communication is the primary vehicle means that formal speeches may last an hour or longer. His interest in this particular aspect of Indian culture is reflective of his own love of poetry and the written word. When he first visited New England in 1638, Josselyn reportedly met with Governor Winthrop and John Cotton, a leader of the first church in Boston, to whom Josselyn gifted a number of psalms that had been translated into English verse. In fact, one of the most iconic writers in American history, Henry David Thoreau, credited Josselyn as an inspiration when he wrote his 1849 work A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
That Josselyn also noticed and documented sometimes incredibly fine details (such as the meter and rhyme used by Indians in their formal speeches) was indicative of his keen scientific eye, which is manifest throughout his Account of Two Voyages. During his travels in New England, he came across a wide range of folk remedies in addition to the myriad flora he catalogued. Wherever possible, he used this information to develop medicines and medical procedures to treat a many different types of ailments.
Josselyn further comments on the Indians’ musical abilities. Most of their music comes from song, which Josselyn describes as “pretty odd barbarous tunes.” He notes that Indians were not accustomed to using musical instruments until the Europeans arrived. Now, he states in his Account, the Indians with whom he interacted constructed crude imitations of European musical instruments such as the fiddle. He further cites the fact that these Indians would nearly perfectly imitate the sounds they heard during lessons. Josselyn appears quite impressed with the ability of Indians to hear and imitate the sounds of European musical instruments as well as construct the instruments “as [artfully] as the best Fiddlemaker amongst us.”
The author’s recollection of the Indians’ musical abilities project the natives in a somewhat different light than common perceptions held among the Europeans. Whereas the popular opinion of Indians was that they were beastly savages with a bloodlust for Europeans, Josselyn described some natives as sociable and even of good humor. He recalls an encounter he had with an Indian named Scozway during his stays in Maine. The fishermen and the farmers near the home of Josselyn’s brother Henry frequently called upon Scozway, an accomplished fiddler, to provide musical entertainment. In his account, Josselyn casts the image of a people who, although not necessarily civilized in the European sense, are sociable and amicable.
Josselyn’s approach to his study of the Indians with whom he came in contact was to compare their culture to a familiar frame of reference—his own European heritage. For example, he cites the fact that the Indians he encountered referred to “sleeps” as a unit of time—for example, a two-day journey would be “two sleeps” for an Indian. Although he stated that Indians did not have an understanding of astronomy, they did use the moon as a unit of time.
Furthermore, Josselyn states that his Indian acquaintances are “generally excellent” guides. Indeed, many maps drawn by European colonists were in fact based on the orientations of Indian guides. Josselyn, who in addition to seeking plant samples in New England had also set out to analyze the topography and geography of the area, relied heavily on the guidance of the indigenous population.
Josselyn takes interest in the Indians’ mobility and willingness to travel great distances on foot. In one example, Josselyn comments on a moose hunt. The Indians might travel thirty or forty miles away from their village, he said, to launch a hunt for these massive animals. Once they found one, they might pursue it over the course of half a day or more. After felling a moose, the hunting party would carefully cut away as much of the animal’s carcass as possible, saving the skin, tongue, and meat.
Such hunts are often conducted in the wintertime, Josselyn reports. The author appears fascinated with the Indians’ ability to conduct such hunts in these often harsh climates. He also demonstrates an interest in the process whereby these hunters locate their quarry, particularly the manner in which each member of the hunting party is assigned tasks. The hunters leave behind the elderly and their wives at a base camp while they track and fell such animals. When the massive beast is brought down and killed, the wives trailing behind the hunting party begin to dismember and skin the animal, carrying pieces of the animal’s carcass back to the base camp. Hunting large animals was much more difficult in some ways before the colonists arrived, Josselyn reports. Using sharp swords and machetes purchased from the French, the hunters are able to kill their prey more rapidly.
After a long hunt in the cold, the Indians next set up camp, building shelters from snow piles. While the fat from the moose’s skin is rendered, the group relaxes and partakes of liquor. With the telling of this story, Josselyn expresses regret over how the English and French who came to New England treated the indigenous peoples. When he arrived in New England, Josselyn had expected the Indians to be knowledgeable of the Bible and other Christian themes, particularly in light of the fact that the Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay colony sought to bring such knowledge to all. Instead, Josselyn laments, the colonists have taught the Indians to take part in sinful activities such as drinking to excess.
When John Josselyn’s New-England Rarities Discovered was published, readers were fascinated and inspired by his analysis of the potential of the New England wilderness to the field of medicine. Josselyn followed that tome with An Account of Two Voyages, wherein he offers his analysis of the New England wilderness itself, as well as the Indians who lived in it.
Josselyn’s approach to this work is similar to that in New-England Rarities Discovered—namely, a direct, critical viewpoint typical of scientific research. He expresses an interest in understanding all of the foreign sights and concepts he encounters and catalogs them in detail.
Although An Account of Two Voyages demonstrates a clinical, scientific approach to understanding the American wilderness and the peoples therein, Josselyn also has a humane attitude toward many of these phenomena. He even comments on the “devil worship” he sees performed by the Indians as not necessarily evil in nature; rather, he believes that the Indians practiced it because they sought to end their myriad afflictions, many of which were brought on by Europeans.
Josselyn sympathizes somewhat with the Indians on the subject of Puritanism. Indeed, his negative view of the church institution of which he had previously run afoul may be seen in his assessments of Indian culture. Even the then-prevalent view of Indians as horrific savages, an image perpetuated by Puritans in Massachusetts, is called into question in Josselyn’s work. His perception of Indians is much more positive, as he seeks to understand their manners of communication, their myths and legends, their mathematical and musical skills, and their cultures overall.
Josselyn’s critical eye therefore does not stop at Indian culture. He makes a direct reference to the diseases brought to America by European sailors. Additionally, he comments on the fact that the Indians frequently partake of alcohol, a substance with which they had had no experience prior to the arrival of Europeans. His critical point of view, coupled with his well-known attention to detail, means that he strives for thoroughness in his examination of New England, its many different peoples, and its countless sights.
By virtue of its many detailed subject areas, Josselyn’s Account of Two Voyages proves to be an invaluable resource for his contemporaries in the scientific arena as well as those seeking to learn more about the New England way of life.
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