The consequential murder of John Oldham, 1636
As I enjoy my second summer at the Block Island Historical Society, I am struck by how difficult it is at times to tell a complete and balanced history of a place or a people. Historical records are often elusive, distorted, and contradictory, so a story must be pieced together with assumptions filling in the gaps. The incident of John Oldham’s murder is one of those stories; intriguing, but unsatisfying in its unanswered questions. This week, 386 years ago, a murder occurred off the shores of Block Island that began a chain of events ultimately resulting in the devastation of the Manisses community here and Massachusetts Bay Colony taking possession of the island.
The victim, John Oldham, was a trader who had been expelled from Plymouth Colony for challenging Puritan authority before settling in Watertown, Massachusetts. He traded frequently with the Narragansetts, and occasionally with the Manisses, with the understanding that he would not trade with their enemies, the Pequots. Oldham hired two Narragansetts to help him navigate the waters to Block Island and act as translators. While anchored offshore on July 20, 1636 he was attacked by a party of Narragansetts, Eastern Niantics, and Manisses; the motive for which has caused much speculation. One belief is that the pugnacious Oldham had cheated the Manisses and started an altercation. Another is that the guides he hired were conspiring with the Manisses. More likely, the attack was the result of strained tensions between the Narragansett and English over Oldham possibly trading with the Pequots. The Massachusetts Bay authorities had recently sent Oldham to the Pequots to collect retribution payment for their killing of a disreputable English trader, John Stone, a year earlier.
We might never have known what became of Oldham if a fellow trader, John Gallup, had not been blown off course during a trade run to Long Island. Gallup recognized Oldham’s boat and saw it was under attack. He shot some of the attackers, others swam away, and others escaped by canoe. Onboard, Gallup found the mutilated body of Oldham and the two Narragansett guides Oldham had hired, hiding below deck. He brought the guides to the Bay Colony authorities where they claimed that Audsah, a minor sachem of the Manisses, planned the attack. The guides also said that the lesser Narragansett sachems were aware of the plan, but insisted that Canonicus and Miantonomi, who were the chief sachems of the Narragansett, were not involved. The authorities also learned that there were two boys kidnapped from Oldham’s boat that maybe had been his sons or nephews. Although the circumstances and causes of the incident remain muddied, what is clear is that Audsah was not acting alone. The fact that The Bay Colony decided to mount a force against the Pequots, and not the Narragansetts, makes me believe that Audsah was scapegoated. He apparently was a rebellious figure in the tribe who some historians have compared to the ambitious Uncas of the Mohegans. To appease the English, Miantonomi ordered that Audsah be put to death, secured the return of the boys (but it is unclear who was holding them) and he led a force of his people to punish the Manisses.
The real reason the English waged war on the Pequots seems to be to gain control of the waterways and trade in the Connecticut River Valley. The Pequot were guilty of other hostilities in the decades leading up to these murders, but it is the killing of Oldham and Stone that are most often cited as the catalyst for the war. A month after Oldham’s murder, Col. John Endicott led a force of 90 men to punish the Manisses by burning their villages. Endicott’s forces left Block Island and continued on to engage the Pequots in a war culminating in the brutal burning of their village at Mystic. Israel Stoughton, one of Endicott’s commanders, returned briefly to Block Island at the end of the year-long
campaign, pursuing Pequots in hopes their former enemies, the Manisses, would shelter them from a now common enemy, the English.
After the war, Massachusetts Bay claimed Block Island by right of conquest, awarding it to Col. John Endicott, Richard Bellingham, Daniel Dennison, and William Hawthorn, for service to The Colony. Twenty-five years later, they sold
the island to the group of planters (farmers) listed on Settlers’ Rock. In 1662, and in the years following, the approximately 1,000 Manisses living on the island were displaced, or subjugated, as The Bay settlers established themselves on the island.
Lipman, Andrew C. “Murder on the Saltwater Frontier: The Death of John Oldham” Early American Studies: University of Pennsylvania Press. Volume 9, Number 2, Spring 2011. 268-294.
McBride, Kevin. "Pequot War." Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Apr. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pequot- War. Accessed July 16, 2022.
Battlefields of the Pequot War, Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. http://pequotwar.org/education/faqs/