Primary Source Analysis assignment

Jason Sellers

Hist. 298: Research Practicum

UMW Spring 2015

Sample Primary Analysis Assignment

[*a PDF of this sample is also posted as “Sample primary source analysis” in the Files section of Canvas]


Trial of Nangenutch, in Administrative Papers of Governors Richard Nicolls and Francis Lovelace, 1664-1673, ed. Peter R. Christoph (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980), 62-72.


On 19 March 1667/8, in the town of Easthampton on the southeastern tip of Long Island, Mary Miller escorted Nangenutch, a Montauk Indian also known to the English as Will, to her home. Sent by her husband, the miller John Miller, to open the door so the Indian laborer could deposit a bag of corn for later grinding, she apparently instead was assaulted and raped. Fleeing her home, she encountered a neighbor to whom she related the assault, and by the following day local magistrates had indicted Nangenutch and deposed Mary and another witness, and the case soon proceeded to trial. A rare instance of documented Indian sexual assault on an English woman, the episode produced a set of primary sources–which I will refer to as the Trial of Nangenutch–that offer a unique opportunity to consider how individual natives grappled with a shifting matrix of racial and gender hierarchies as a succession of colonial regimes undermined Native American economic independence, political and legal sovereignty, and cultural autonomy.

Nangenutch and Mary’s story is preserved in a series of documents, including Nangenutch’s indictment, colonial officials’ instructions for his trial, four depositions, the court’s examination of Mary and Nangenutch, court minutes of the proceedings, and finally a verdict. The originals are held at the New York Library and State Archives, but were published in 1980 as part of the New York Historical Manuscripts series edited by Peter Christoph. They appear in The Administrative Papers of Governors Richard Nicolls and Francis Lovelace, 1664-1673, the English governors of New York in the years immediately following the English conquest of New Netherland in 1664. The case draws brief comment in several other documents, though little elaboration; the most significant addition to our records is a 1669 order from Lovelace preventing Nangenutch/Will–who had been sentenced to a public whipping and sale to the West Indies, but had escaped from jail–from entering East Hampton.

Several major strains of sociopolitical development intersected in the incident and ensuing trial. The Montauk Indians had been tributaries of the powerful Pequots until New England and a number of native allies resentful of Pequot power had decimated the latter’s population in the 1630s. Having escaped one oppressive relationship, the Montauk subsequently found themselves caught between Narragansetts seeking to fill the void left in native New England by subjecting smaller groups to their own power, Dutch efforts to secure their hold on Long Island, and the aspirations of New Englanders hoping to overtake the Dutch colony. When Montauks granted Englishmen from Connecticut the land on which they would eventually establish Easthampton, it seemed to be an attempt to counter both Dutch and Narragansett efforts to subject the Montauks by installing an English trade partner and military ally nearby.

By the time the Dutch regime had been replaced by an English government in the 1660s, ongoing attacks and dwindling numbers had forced the Montauks to largely abandon their own lands to assume positions as laborers in English towns. Thus Nangenutch found himself, in 1667/8, in a moment at which English jurisdiction was solidifying over the whole of Long Island, reinforcing the economic dominance and cultural pressures English settlers had exerted on the Montauks over the previous two decades. Nangenutch himself experienced firsthand these increasingly unbalanced power relations, living as a bound laborer in the home of Richard Shaw, and being renamed “Will” by his English masters and neighbors. His experience was not unique on Long Island, nor would it have been unusual in other areas of New England or the Chesapeake, where recent wars between colonial and native populations had left Native Americans diminished in numbers and resources and power, displaced from their lands, and confined to small reserves or isolated and absorbed into colonial settlements.

Part of an effort to extend legal jurisdiction over the Montauk community to confirm their political subjugation, the court transcripts of the Trial of Nangenutch suggest proceedings followed standard legal procedure for the English colony. Nangenutch and Mary both testified in a case brought by John Miller, Mary’s husband; Remember Shaw, the neighbor to whom Mary first reported the assault, testified as well. During the first trial, the local magistrate John Mulford conducted the proceedings and endorsed each official document, which was presumably recorded by an official scribe, while a special court oversaw the second trial a month later.

Several less visible characters contributed to proceedings as well. Annah Chatfield served as a sort of character witness, testifying that Nangenutch had assaulted her a year earlier in a similar encounter. Depositions are rendered simply as the deponents’ words, absent Mulford’s questions or prompts that may have influenced the deponents. Perhaps more significantly, Nangenutch’s master, Richard Shaw, who had already twice accused his servant of theft and once had him publicly whipped, served as the interpreter in the case. His own preferences and predilections could well have shaped what he conveyed to the court, and ultimately the outcome of the case.

Those considerations aside, the documents still provide considerable challenge to the historian. Two fires and storage issues damaged Dutch and English records from the 17th century, resulting in a number of elisions in the transcripts. We can sometimes extrapolate the missing information, but not always. Moreover, there is a particular challenge in reconciling the specificity of a single case involving a unique individual with larger considerations about the experiences of native peoples in colonial New York. Without additional examples to corroborate broader conclusions, many interpretive assertions will necessarily be tentative; however, the work of other historians who have identified and examined rape cases more broadly, though rarely involving Indian men or drawn from the 17th century, may offer some basis for comparison.

Despite the speculative nature of some interpretations, however, this episode remains compelling. Nangenutch’s actions seem to recreate circumstances through which white male patriarchs were able to create the appearance of consent in instances of coerced sex. Mary’s reaction, however, suggested that she immediately rejected his claims to sexual power over her, even while the eventual verdict–the court found Nangenutch guilty of attempted rape–charted a middle course that rejected his claims to sexual power while also defining rape as narrowly as possible. How did Nangenutch’s racial status factor in his behavior, in Mary’s response, and in the outcome of his trial? Was his behavior purely individual, or the product of a creeping English hegemony that constrained the economic, political, and cultural expressions of Montauk Indians on Long Island? How did his people’s changing circumstances alter as well the expressions of gender identity available to Montauk men? Even if it cannot provide definitive answers, this singular record does provide material for considering such questions in relation to the experiences of at least one individual who may not have been so unique as the records in which his history is preserved.


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