Friday, April 5, 2013

Promises Made

Eric Schultz

Brian Williams recently featured a story on the NBC Nightly News about the bureaucratic nightmare that has more than 900,000 American veterans awaiting disability benefits from the government. The Veterans Administration is promising to have the backlog cleared by the end of 2015, but for now, the average wait time is 273 days.

After hearing this I had a flashback of sorts and walked downstairs into the basement, past the water softener and over by the Christmas ornaments to find the musty blue Rubbermaid tubs filled with my King Philip’s War notes from over twenty years ago. 

Sure enough, there was the file marked “Veterans.”  I began leafing through it. In December 1675, 696 Massachusetts Bay soldiers mustered on Dedham Plain, thought to be the present Hyde Park section of Boston. They were to march south and meet with soldiers assembling in Plymouth and Connecticut colonies to form a thousand-man army and attack the Narragansetts in their large fort at today’s South Kingston, Rhode lsland. It would become one of the most deadly and controversial events of the war, in part because both sides suffered so many casualties and in part because the Narragansetts had remained scrupulously neutral.

Colonial authorities had a different view, however. The Narragansetts were guilty—if that’s the right word—of harboring Wampanoag women and children displaced by the war. When colonial authorities demanded that these noncombatants be handed over, Canonchet responded eloquently, “No, not a Wampanoag nor the paring of a Wampanoag nail.”

Diplomacy ended. The Massachusetts Bay soldiers who were assembled that December day received this encouragement from an anxious governor: “If they played the man, took the fort, and drove the enemy out of Narragansett country . . . they should have a gratuity of land besides their wages.”

The Great Swamp Fight was waged on the cold, snowy afternoon of December 19, 1675.  Hundreds of Narragansetts perished. The colonial army counted some 200 among its dead or wounded. Puritan historians William Hubbard and Increase Mather proclaimed a great victory when, in fact, the battle pushed New England’s strongest Native American army into the war.  However, it was victory enough for soldiers to earn their bounty of land.

The war ended in southern New England in 1676, but it took until 1685 for the first grant of land to be set aside for Massachusetts Bay veterans. However, there were strings attached: settlement could only begin if thirty families and a minister were assembled within four years. Those conditions could simply not be met.

It was nearly fifty years, June 6, 1733, before veterans and (by now, mostly) heirs assembled on Boston Common to divide new allocations of land set aside by Massachusetts. This time neither the list of heirs seemed complete nor the quantity and quality of land sufficient. Ultimately, it took eighty-five years, until 1760, before the bounty was finally paid, resulting in the formation of the towns of Templeton, Greenwich, and Westminster, Massachusetts; Amherst, New Hampshire; and Buxton and Gorham, Maine.  Greenwich would exist just 200 years, with large portions of the town today submerged under the Quabbin Reservoir.

It seems safe to say that no veteran of King Philip’s War ever saw his bounty paid. Likewise, for the wounded Iraqi War veterans featured on last week’s NBC News broadcast, 273 days of waiting can seem like a lifetime. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does seem to rhyme sometimes.

1 comment:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

In my class on Milton and the English Revolution, we just spent a good bit of time talking about the ways in which the non-payment of promised money for veterans of the English Civil War(s) shaped the political realities of the Interregnum. Yeah, that rhymes with Iraq War....