In my historical novel Neespaugot: The Legend of the Indian’s Coin, Runinniduk, the Native American forefather of the story, is awarded one of the first coins minted in the New World for his help in translating the Holy Bible into Algonquian. Bearing the seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the coin is subsequently passed down from one racially mixed generation to another and serves both to highlight the individual characters’ struggles with bigotry and, in the larger scope of history, to symbolize their transcendence.
Readers have expressed an interest in the coin’s backstory, namely, did such a coin exist and is its first owner, Runinniduk, based on a real person. The answer to both questions is closer to yes than one might expect.
Let’s start with the coin’s story. To my knowledge, there was no money at that time that depicted the Massachusetts Bay Colony Seal, a cartoon-like male Indian pleading with the colonists for spiritual salvation. While it’s true that Puritan New England celebrated its first coin minting in Boston in 1652, those first batches were engraved with the image of a pine tree, hence its name, “the pine-tree shilling,” a 12-penny piece of silver worth 25% less than its London equivalent.
However, fast forward 24 years to 1676. King Philip’s War was dying down, and the colonies were looking for ways to tell the difference between “good” and “bad” Indians. The Massachusetts Council ordered the manufacturing of a brass medal to be given to Christian Indians who had served the English during the war. Engraved on the medal was the image of a half-naked Indian woman. Aside from the fact that her comical, pie-shaped breasts must have been the work of a six-year-old, or that it was apparently okay for the Puritans to display a heathen woman’s sex, the remarkable thing was that she was a replica of the Indian on the Massachusetts Bay Colony seal, right down to the ridiculous pose and bow and arrow. Each medal had an eyelet bored into it so that its recipient could, like Runinniduk, string a strap through it and wear it around his neck.
The character of Runinniduk, like his coin, is an invention nourished on historical elements. His story actually dates back to 1498, when the navigator John Cabot and five of England’s best ships disappeared off the face of the earth, setting English exploration of the New World back 100 years and providing history one of its great unsolved mysteries. One of the more intriguing theories had the expedition reaching the east coast of the present-day United States.
The idea of Cabot (or one of his men) surviving a shipwreck to live among the First Nation peoples fascinated me. Would he have fathered children? Based on the Lewis and Clark journals concerning native customs on the Great Plains, there’s no reason to believe that the Algonquian peoples wouldn’t have encouraged their women to sleep with a white man in the belief that mixed blood was power and a safeguard against the white gods.
One hundred years after Cabot, the gene pool spins out Runinniduk, a fair-skinned Indian in a dark-skinned world soon to become a white world hostile to anything native. Mistrusted by the tribes, denigrated by the colonists, Runinniduk is an outlier, caught between worlds that want nothing to do with him, and his resulting anguish provides one of the deepest threads tying together Neespaugot.
Is there a particular historical personage whose cultural background and political predicament served as a basis for Runinniduk’s character? While not a perfect match, the Indian pastor John Sassamon probably comes closest. The son of Christian Indians, Sassamon was orphaned and raised by English colonists who taught him the Scriptures as well as how to read and write English. By all accounts, he was a dark-hearted, sulky, ambitious schemer, which made him nothing like Runinniduk. But Sassamon’s career path is where the comparison takes shape.
Sassamon taught native children to read and write English. He attended Harvard, worked with Minister John Eliot on the Massachusetts Bible and became a confidant of the great Indian leader Metacom, as well as a spy for both the sachem and the colonies. Like Runinniduk, Sassamon suffered the anguish of not fitting in, and it ultimately ended up costing him his life. In January 1675, Sassamon rode under great risk to Plymouth colony to betray his chief, ingratiate himself with the colonists and obtain a reward. He failed on all accounts.
Governor Winslow dismissed Sassamon’s information outright “because it had an Indian original (originated out of the mouth of an Indian), and one can hardly believe them even when they speak truth.” A month later Sassamon was fished out from under the ice of Assawompset Pond, his neck twisted but no water found in his lungs. Three of Metacom’s advisors were charged, convicted and hanged with very little evidence against them (one was indeed hanged twice when his rope broke). That June, King Philip’s War broke out.
Finally, Governor Winslow’s ignoble comment highlighted a further ignominy for Sassamon and other educated Christian Indians who made the effort to learn English: condescension from colonists who had made no such cultural effort of their own. On that score, native indignation presaged what most immigrants and minorities would feel in the centuries to come.
Amazon Link: Neespaugot: The Legend of the Indian’s Coin
Recommended Article: Neespaugot: The Legend of the Indian’s Coin – a Review