One of the most vivid criminal trials of seventeenth-century American history celebrated its 380th anniversary a few days ago on Sept. 4. On that day, in 1638, authorities in Plymouth Colony tried Arthur Peach, along with three codefendants, for the murder of a Nipmuc man called Penowanyanquis. The court found the men guilty and sentenced them to death. Three of the four men that were convicted, including Peach, died by hanging. The fourth escaped before trial to Maine, whose people openly refused Plymouth’s requests for his extradition.
The factual background of the crime emerges from passages in William Bradford’s “History of Plymouth Plantation”, and from letters that Roger Williams, who led the settlement known as Providence, traded with John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Three men–presumably Narragansett–were following one of the native trails some twelve miles from Providence when they came across an injured man who was barely able to crawl out of the brush and into the path. The man had serious wounds in his leg and his abdomen; he was losing blood. He identified himself as Penowanyanquis, a Nipmuc man. He was out traveling on the trail to deliver bolts of cloth and wampum from Plymouth to Miantonomoh, the Narragansett sachem.
Despite his wounds, Penowanyanquis was able to give an account of what happened to him. He explained that on his way to Plymouth, he briefly encountered four Englishmen in the woods. When he returned from Plymouth, he met the same four men in a particularly dark wooded place called Misquamsqueece (in the location of present-day Seekonk, Massachussetts). At that time, they encouraged him to sit and smoke a pipe with them, which he agreed to do. As he sat there, one of the men drew his rapier and lunged at Penowanyanquis, stabbing him through the leg and into his stomach. Penowanyanquis leapt back in response and dodged additional rapier thrusts by his attacker as well as another blow from one of the other Englishmen. Although he was wounded, he staggered off into the woods, leaving his wares behind. The Englishmen did not pursue him.
The men who found Penowanyanquis sent word ahead and notified Roger Williams who came and spoke with the wounded man near the site of his attack. Penowanyanquis was quite weak by then. He explained to Williams the general outlines of what happened at Misquamsqueece and then asked him to get the rest of the story from his rescuers, which by his own account, Williams did. Two physicians attended they wounded man, Thomas James and John Greene.
Williams concluded from the descriptions he received of the Englishmen who attacked Penowayanquis that he could identify them. The previous day, he had received word from a group of Nipmuc men that a party of four Englishmen were encamped in a thickly wooded place a few miles from Providence, that they were probably lost and were on the brink of starvation. Williams sent messengers with supplies to assist them and to urge them to pay him a visit in Providence. Although on his first entreaty, they refused to leave their camp, they agreed to come when Williams sent a second messenger. Williams welcomed them at his home and spoke with them for some time. They explained to him that they were on their way to Connecticut. Williams then asked them to deliver some letters for him at their destination and saw them on their way. The next day, as he listened to Penowanyanquis’ story, he realized that he had helped the attackers escape.
In the meantime, people were talking about the attack. Miatonomoh approached Williams to say that many of the Narragansett were concerned that this attack represented the beginning of a wave of deadly attacks against natives. The Pequot War (1636-1638) had just come to an end, and although the Narragansett people fought the alongside the English in that conflict, it demonstrated to them just how willing the English were to kill natives. It was not unthinkable that the English could direct the same type conduct against them. Williams tried to assure them that justice would be done.
Miatonomoh’s men soon apprehended the four Englishmen and delivered them to the English settlement of Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island. When Williams found out that the men were in English custody, he reached out to John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and to Thomas Prence, the Governor of Plymouth Colony. They realized that no colony had previously claimed jurisdiction over the land where the Englishmen attacked Penowanyanquis. Williams pointed out that the men had most recently resided in Plymouth, and therefore they broke Plymouth law. Winthrop responded that the best thing to do would be to hand Arthur Peach, the man accused of running Penowanyanquis through with his rapier, over to the Narragansett; the English should let the Narragansett nation punish him as it saw fit. While this conversation proceeded, outrage at the fact that the English were not taking any action was growing among the Narragansett. With rumors of their anger growing, the people of Portsmouth began to fear that the Narragansett would attack their town as long as the four accused were kept there. William Bradford later reflected in his journal that he feared war.
When Governor Prence weighed in, he noted that the worst outcome would be if the accused appealed their case to the Crown, in which case they would be transferred to London, creating the impression among the natives that the English were protecting them from justice. He decided therefore to claim jurisdiction and to try the men in Plymouth before they were able to take any such steps.
Bradford notes the identities of the accused men in his journal: Richard Stinnings, Daniel Cross, Thomas Jackson and Arthur Peach. All four men were living in Plymouth before the attack. They were indentured servants, which meant that they all had a motive to abandon Plymouth and pursue their fortunes in another colony, the Dutch colony to the south for instance. Arthur Peach, however, was the only one of the group who had very strong motivation to cut ties with Plymouth. Bradford remarks that Peach fought in the Pequot War, which meant that he was probably in a unit that Massachusetts Bay Colony organized, since Plymouth’s men never participated in combat during the war. He mentions that Peach served honorably “and had done as good service as the most there and one of the forwardest in any attempt.” Roger Williams mentioned in a letter that Peach was an Irishman by origin, and that he was known to come from a well thought of family: “of good parentage and fair-conditions.” Peach’s indenture in Plymouth was to Edward Winslow, one of the assistant governors of the colony. Bradford mentions that after the war, Peach became idle and listless. He refused to work, and began to fall into debt. To make matters worse he got a young woman pregnant, and so he would have preferred to flee Plymouth than to accept punishment for fornication. All reports agree that Peach was the ringleader of the group and that he was the one who convinced them to abandon the colony.
The record of the procedure the court followed at trial is fragmentary. Confession seems to have furnished the principle evidence against the accused. Williams notes in a letter that two of the men died penitents, one of whom was Peach. Bradford wrote much later in his journal that “being often examined and the evidence produced, they all in the end freely confessed in effect all that the Indian accused them of, and that they had done it, in the manner aforesaid.” Elsewhere, however, Roger Williams remarked, “it pleased the Lord to force the men to confess,” although this is probably a theological statement, and not a report of coercive interrogation. At one point in the trial it became clear that no one present had actually seen Penowanyanquis die, and that there was therefore no one who could positively affirm that he had died. The jury, however, was satisfied when the physicians who treated Penowanyanquis testified that his wounds were mortal, and the court supplied two Narragansett men who swore that if he were not dead, they would suffer death themselves.
Bradford’s reconstruction of the conspirator’s actions is worth a read:
“At length there came a Narragansett Indian by who had been in the bay a’ trading and had both cloth and beads about him. They had met him the day before and he was now returning. Peach called him to drink tobacco with them and he came and sat down with them. Peach told the others he would kill him and take what he had from him. But they were something afraid; but he said hang him; rogue, he had killed many of them. So they let him alone to do as he would and when he saw his time, he took a rapier and ran him through the body once or twice and took from him 5 fathom of wampum, and 3 coats of cloth and went their way, leaving him for dead…”
Baylies, Francis. An Historical Memoir of the Colony of New Plymouth: From the Flight of the Pilgrims Into Holland in the Year 1608, to the Union of that Colony with Massachusetts in 1692. Boston, 1830.
Bradford, William. History of Plymouth Plantation. Charles Dean, ed. Boston, 1856.
LaFantasie, Glenn W. “Murder of an Indian, 1638.” Rhode Island History, vol 38, no. 3 (August 1979), pp. 67-77.