Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians

John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians
John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians by Hollis Holbrook
Natick, Massachusetts Post Office
Image by Thomas Portue. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Hollis Howard Holbrook was born in Natick in 1909 and graduated from the Massachusetts School of Art in 1934 and Yale School of Fine Arts in 1936. In his hometown of Natick, Holbrook took on an 17th century episode of cruel internment of the local Indian people. In his mural titled John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians, painted in 1937, he immortalized the removal and “deportation” of Natick Indians to Deer Island in Boston Harbor.

Hollis Holbrook received commissions for six different post office murals, including Reforestation in Haleyville, Alabama, and Sugar Cane Mill in Jeanerette, Louisiana. He then joined the University of Florida as a faculty member in 1938. Shortly thereafter, he founded the University’s art department, and taught there until he retired as a professor emeritus in 1978. Throughout that time, he created murals, sculptures and paintings for exhibitions and competitions. Hollis Holbrook died in Gainesville, Florida in August 1984 at the age of 75.

Holbrook’s choice of subject for his mural was the founder of the town at a controversial and powerful moment in its earliest history. Natick was founded by John Eliot, who became known through his missionizing work as the “Apostle to the Indians.” Eliot was born in Hertfordshire, England in 1604 and emigrated to Boston as a ship’s chaplain in 1631. Eliot took up a position as a minister in Roxbury and began working to learn the language of the Massachusett people, whom he was driven to convert to Christianity. Eliot successfully preached in the Massachsett language in the town of Nonantum (now known as Newton), and many Indian people, including Waban, chief of the Indians of Nonantum, converted to Christianity. In the belief that converted Indian people should live together in Christian towns to follow a prayerful way of life, Eliot brought many of his followers together at Nonantum to help in the settlement of the first Christian Indian town in America. Waban was made Chairman of the Board of Selectmen and Justice of the Peace. In 1651, the town of what were known as “Praying Indians” was moved to Natick to occupy land Eliot had been granted by the General Court as part of the Dedham Grant. In 1661, Eliot published the first translation of the New Testament into Massachusett and, in 1663, published the combined Old and New Testaments in the language of the Massachusett.

Despite Eliot’s efforts, conversion was slow. At one point, there may have been as many as 14 towns of Praying Indians, but their establishment was frequently met with hostility. Despite this, Indian people did continue to convert, and an unofficial census in 1674 numbered them at around 4,000 strong. One who was reluctant to join this number was the Wampanoag sachem Metacomet, otherwise known as King Philip. Daniel Gookin, a civil servant who assisted Eliot, reported in 1674 that there were tentative signs that Metacomet was interested in receiving the gospel, but had reservations about how conversion to Christianity would weaken him as a sachem and result in his being “easily...trod upon by others”. Eliot did not give up, however, and assigned an Indian missionary, who had been educated at a Harvard Indian school, to teach Metacomet to read. This, Eliot hoped, would help encourage his conversion. He chose a man named John Sassamon, a second generation Christian Indian. Though he initially gained some influence with the Wampanoags, Sassamon was ultimately unsuccessful and left in the late 1660s.

Simmering animosity between white colonists and Indian people such as the Wampanoags was bubbling to the surface. By 1671, Wampanoag discomfort had grown to a high point. A mix of damage to Indian lands, resentment of Eliot’s teachings, and the impetus of younger Wampanoag warriors, including Metacomet’s own brother, pushed him to prepare for war. In March of that year, he entered the town of Swansea in the Plymouth Colony with a group of fully armed warriors, but did not attack. The Plymouth General Court demanded an explanation and summoned Metacomet to appear before them. Peace seemed to have been reestablished through a Treaty at Taunton the following month, but subsequent disputes over the actual meaning of its terms led to renewed hostilities. At this point, John Eliot intervened. He also sent former missionaries, including John Sassamon, to the Wampanoag to encourage an avoidance of war. However, in August 1671, Plymouth declared Metacomet “insolent” and accused him of misleading actions. In September of 1671, the Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay colonies would join with the Plymouth colony to impose a treaty on Metacomet, making him a subject of the Plymouth colony. The terms also included a heavy fine, which he paid through the sale of Indian lands.

In the end of 1674, John Sassamon visited Metacomet’s camp and became convinced that he was planning an attack against Plymouth and informed the colony. On January 29, 1675, shortly after departing Plymouth, Sassamon was murdered and left in an icy pond. Three Wampanoag were subsequently tried and executed for the murder, an action that Metacomet felt violated his sovereignty. He was asked to accept arbitration of his grievances, but tensions finally boiled over in June of 1675, when an English colonist shot and killed a Wampanoag who was found inside abandoned homes in the Plymouth town of Swansea, and King Philip’s War had begun.

In October 1675, the General Court issued an order that all the Praying Indians at Natick would be removed and sent to Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Eyewitnesses report that the Indians at the Pines faced their predicament “submissively and Christianly and affectionately,” seeking and giving encouragement through prayer and tears, expressing their fears to Eliot, who was present at the time, that they would never return. Most did not. Near midnight on October 30, 1675, the Natick inhabitants were ferried out to Deer Island, and left with little clothing or provisions. When the arrangements were made for the Praying Indians to be interned on Deer Island, the island’s owner, Daniel Henchman of Boston, expressly forbade the cutting down of trees, hunting of game, and lighting of fires on the island. Many, particularly the young and old, pregnant and sick, died from starvation, disease, and exposure to the elements. First-hand accounts report that John Eliot attempted to row out to Deer Island to bring supplies to the Indians, but his boat was capsized by angry colonists, endangering his life. In November 1675, the Praying Indian Villages of Ponkapoag (Stoughton, MA) and Nashoba (Littleton, MA) joined the Natick Praying Indians in their “tragic confinement” from 1675-1676. Indians captured in the fighting were also imprisoned on Long Island in Boston Harbor, and many other villages either fled or joined Metacomet. John Eliot and Daniel Gookin, who later became the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs, personally paid for and oversaw the removal of the Indians from Deer Island after the end of King Philip’s War. Sadly, those few who had survived their time there returned to Natick to find their homes destroyed and property looted. Gradually, the survivors sold their lands and dispersed.

Hollis Holbrook’s mural captures the moment at The Pines when the Natick were being taken away in chains and were seeking comfort from John Eliot. Holbrook is reported to have taken his likeness of Eliot from a historical image, but the figure of Chief Waban was actually modeled on the postmaster at the time of Holbrook’s painting, P. Victor Casavant. It is possible that Holbrook drew some inspiration from Sarah Sprague Jacobs of the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, whose 1853 book, Nonantum and Natick includes a detailed description of what the scene may have looked like. Many among the Indians in Massachusetts today regard this mural as an important reminder of the cruel treatment of their forbearers. The mural was restored in 2007 after it suffered damage from a roof leak and a local Native leader described the restoration as “a spiritual restoration and reconciliation”.

By Meghan Navarro


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Indians at the Post Office