Digging into my Family’s History with Native Americans

My family has been in the United States since before the United States existed. Distant relatives on both my mother’s and father’s sides arrived in Massachusetts and Connecticut in the 1600s and we’ve been here, more or less, ever since. I learned a few years ago that one branch of the family was nearly wiped out on their way to church one Sunday morning when a band of Native Americans killed the entire party, save one infant, a child named Hannah.

At first, I heard the story from the perspective of my family. I saw it as a group of peaceful people on their way to church who were unjustly murdered.

Then I learned more about the history of various Native American tribes and the ways in which white settlers pushed them out of their lands, infected them with diseases, and eventually constructed unjust laws that favored white interests. At that point, I started to see our family as the problem, even, perhaps, the perpetrator.

I recently learned more. One, that this family member came to the US because he was a Protestant in England and was in danger of execution. He was a religious refugee who fled to America. Two, that there was a war going on at the time between the Native Americans and the colonists (King Philip’s war), and it isn’t clear from a historical perspective, who was being unjust to whom at every point.

Were the white colonists oppressing the native peoples or were they negotiating while two groups of people tried to figure out how to live peaceably together? Should the white refugees have fled elsewhere? Were there answers other than separation and other than bloodshed?

I don’t know enough to answer those questions, but I know enough to believe it is a messy and complicated story.

On that day, the Native Americans killed Hannah’s sister, her mother, and her father. Three other siblings had stayed home, so they raised Hannah, and she is my many-greats-in-a-row ancestor who lived not far from where I live now.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I am trying to learn how to express my gratitude–in the past and the present–for all that is noble and good and blessed about this nation while also expressing my sadness and regret over all that is unjust and hateful. I am thankful for a place that received religious refugees. I am troubled by a history of violence towards the people who already lived here. I am troubled by the story of Hannah Keep. I am troubled by the story of the founding of a nation with liberty and justice for all that wasn’t really for all. I am also thankful for Hannah Keep. I am thankful for religious liberty, for a history of welcome to immigrants and refugees, for the ideals of our justice system even when it fails, for the chance to live in this country.
(Here’s some of the historical record.)

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