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The Devil and the Wilderness

Text by Aileen Agnew

Images from Maine Historical Society

In August 1692, George Burroughs, sometime resident of Casco Bay and Wells, was executed along with three others in Salem, Massachusetts, for crimes of witchcraft.

A forceful personality, Burroughs had completed the education of a minister, but never been ordained. During his career as an unordained preacher, he offended many Puritan leaders by overstepping his authority, particularly during his years in the outlying settlements of Maine.

Massachusetts ministers and judges were ready to believe the worst of a man who moved freely between the wilderness frontier and more settled areas, and who somehow escaped Indian attacks on more than one occasion. His notably dark hair and complexion only added to people’s suspicions that he might have non-Puritan connections, either spiritual or social.

Map of coastal Maine forts, 1723
Map of coastal Maine forts, 1723
Maine Historical Society

The threads of Puritan New England’s great fears drew together in the person of George Burroughs, feeding his conviction and execution for witchcraft.

In the 17th century, English settlers in Massachusetts fixed their towns along the coast and up navigable rivers. To the west and north stretched great expanses of uncleared forests. Their duty was clear: where a wilderness existed, a garden should be made. The economic and spiritual health of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies depended on the ability of the English settlers to plant themselves and extract the natural resources of New England.

Thus, the early leaders of the Massachusetts colonies approved attempts to settle Maine. Expanding their settlements required 17th century New Englanders to confront their two great fears: Indians and the Devil. These fears reinforced each other, affecting the way that the English settlers dealt with each other, and with the Indians, and shaping the way these Puritans saw their place within the larger New England landscape.

Samuel Willard sermon, Boston, 1701
Samuel Willard sermon, Boston, 1701
Maine Historical Society

Many of the first Maine settlers chose to live with those fears, preferring the dangers of frontier life to the social constraints of the relatively safe, religious communities of Massachusetts. George Burroughs came to Maine in the mid-1670s, drawn at least in part by the land grant offered to him as minister to a flock at Casco Neck. King Philip’s War and a 1676 attack on Falmouth sent Burroughs and his family back to Massachusetts.

The existence of the devil was not questioned by most New Englanders, nor was the fact that the devil could appear in a real body, whether human or animal. Ministers, in their weekly sermons, demanded vigilance from congregations in identifying and quashing all traces of evil.

When communities faltered in their attention to finding the devil’s work among them, some ministers suggested that the reason for their other troubles lay in their failure to eradicate their own sins. In order to spread the word beyond their own immediate congregations, many ministers wrote books to reinforce the spoken word.

New England Puritans believed that the wilderness was the natural habitat of the devil. Since Native-Americans belonged to the wilderness, their familiarity with the ways of the devil seemed obvious to the settlers.

The great concern of the Puritans for any captive was that exposure to Indian culture would make a friend or family member susceptible to the devil, or to those agents of the devil, the French priests. Cotton Mather noted in his work, Magnalia Christi Americana, that many more people died of contagious disease than in attacks by or on Indians, yet it was capture and to a lesser extent death, at the hands of Native-Americans that inspired tremendous dread.

Indian conflicts, disease, and the presence of the devil proved that people needed to work harder at godliness.

Relations with the Indians ebbed and flowed from the first days of exploration, as the Native-Americans and the European settlers became acquainted with each other’s cultural imperatives. The dawning realization among the New England tribes, that for the English, land had “become as gold” as Roger Williams had predicted, insured violence as the Indians struggled to maintain control of their resources.

The great fears regarding this violence spread organically through the populations of New England towns. Many of the conflicts of King Philip’s War in 1675 and 1676 took place in and around the towns of eastern Massachusetts, but the attacks reverberated throughout New England.

The death of King Philip gave eastern Massachusetts a measure of peace, but clashes continued off and on for many decades in Maine, keeping alive the memories of the earlier conflict. Reminiscences and stories continued to pass in letters, from the mouths of refugees, including Burroughs and his congregants from Maine, in tales told by older generations, and in the many published accounts of the war.

Despite the relative success of the Indians in driving out settlers from Maine in 1676 and again around 1690, after a few years the desire to accumulate land took precedence over fear as New Englanders attempted resettlement of contested areas. Some New Englanders saw it as their duty to populate and tame the wilderness, regardless of the danger of getting too far way from the established churches of Massachusetts and too close to the devil and the Indians in the wilderness.

A new town felt safer from harm, once they were able to lure a minister to join the community. More than one published captivity narrative presented capture and the death of family members as punishment from God for living too far away from a church and minister. The willingness of communities to hire the unordained George Burroughs illustrates the desire of some to have at least some access to regular religion.

Iron axe head, Auburn, ca. 1700
Iron axe head, Auburn, ca. 1700
Maine Historical Society

Those New Englanders who took the settlement of the frontier as an opportunity to get away from the steady diet of sermons and interfering neighbors may not have been happy about the encroaching religious culture. Some of these nonconformers belonged to other religious sects; some simply wanted more space.

However, the repeated attacks by Indians forced many back to towns where they carried their fears and stories of Indian wars to people already afraid. Land speculation, some said, had encouraged the non-faithful and opened them all to divine retribution.

Indian conflicts were but one of the ways that divine anger punished the settlers. Outbreaks of supernatural occurrences likewise proved that people had become corrupted by contact with the devil.

In Maine and New Hampshire, the years between the end of King Philip’s War in 1676 and the outbreak of King William’s War, several incidents of rock throwing or lithobilia were attributed to the devil. Many people believed the rocks essentially threw themselves.

Historian Emerson Baker demonstrates that the rock-throwers were people, throwing stones at neighbors they feared or otherwise disliked. The main targets of the New Hampshire assaults had Quaker connections. Puritans in the 17th century thought Quakers were wicked and dangerous. In The Magnalia, Cotton Mather listed Quakers along with “Salvages” and “Imposters” as enemies in the “Wars of the Lord.”

In Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692, the overriding fears of the devil in more than one town collided with the generalized fears of those who inhabited the wilderness. A recent round of conflicts and the ongoing fears of the devil’s handiwork combined to create a local hysteria in one town.

Many people connected with the Salem Witch Trials had personal acquaintance with the reality of Indian assaults during the Indian Wars. In addition, some of the people who played important roles in witch trials also had been players in the lithobilia outbreaks in Maine and New Hampshire.

In one case, Mercy Short had been both a neighbor to the victims of a lithobilia attack in Berwick, and been taken herself as a captive to Canada.

A Maine connection may have made individuals more vulnerable to blame. Another of the Salem accused, Mary Watkins, was originally from the Kennebec River, where her stepfather ran an Indian trading post. She ended up in jail and ill, with no family to aid in her release.

George Burroughs, then a minister from Wells, had alternated years spent in Falmouth and Black Point with time served in Salem. When he was accused, many knew him from Maine and connected him with a time of fear and Indian assaults. He and others had perhaps been tainted by their exposure to the wilderness.

Those who had lived through attacks and witnessed the brutal deaths of their families and friends, as well as the destruction of their homes, never emerged unscathed, perhaps especially if they had spent time with the Indians.

The trailing off of the witch crisis, and the passage of a few years, saw New Englanders attempting once again to settle the province of Maine. In the 18th century, towns in Maine continued to struggle to get and keep ministers, and the Indians were still a presence. The concern for spiritual as well as physical safety remained strong for many years.

Mainers took comfort in the establishment of forts and strong houses along the coast. A plea to Reverend Baxter, from the residents of Brunswick described their fort and added, “But we desire to be fortified likewise with the Gospell.”

As the settlements spread, Indian assaults continued to dominate the fears of farmers and others. Attacks when they occurred, tended to be less widespread and include more destruction of personal property. When Samuel Whitney was taken captive in 1751, 20-30 head of his cattle were killed 25677.

Returning captives, as well as those who returned to claim land after fleeing assaults, needed to testify that indeed they owned their land and to furnish witnesses to verify the claims. As conflict with the Indians gave way to conflict with speculators or those who falsely claimed land ownership, the original devils of the Puritan imagination faded from the scene.