According to the 1855 The Jesuit Missions of Paraguay page 13:

the first planters of the state of Massachusetts expressly assumed for themselves a right to treat the Indians on the footing of Canaanites or Amelekites

This book cites to George Bancroft's 1840 History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, volume III which says at page 408:

Massachusetts, where the first planters assumed to themselves "a right to treat the Indians on the foot of Canaanites or Amalekites," was always opposed to the introduction of slaves from abroad; and, in 1701...

However, these references are on the order of 200 years later than the time of the "first planters" of Massachusetts.

Are there even older references attesting to, or refuting, the statement about Canaanites or Amalekites?

  • 1
    Assumed the right or actually treated Indians like Canaanites?
    – user36356
    Jan 6, 2017 at 19:04
  • @KDog I'm just asking for older (pre-1800) sources that they reserved such a right. I'm not asking about whether they exercised the supposed right. So far George Bancroft's 1840 History of the United States is the oldest I can find. books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Jan 6, 2017 at 19:06
  • So can you define what it is to be treated like a Canannite?
    – user36356
    Jan 6, 2017 at 19:07
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    @KDog "You must completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, just as the LORD your God has commanded you" biblehub.com/deuteronomy/20-17.htm
    – DavePhD
    Jan 6, 2017 at 19:11
  • @KDog I'm not sure enough to put in the question. There is also Numbers 17:43-45, " For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and ye shall fall by the sword: because ye are turned away from the Lord, therefore the Lord will not be with you. But they presumed to go up unto the hill top: nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, departed not out of the camp. Then the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites which dwelt in that hill, and smote them, and discomfited them, even unto Hormah." christianity.com/bible/bible.php?q=Numbers+14&ver=kjv
    – DavePhD
    Jan 11, 2017 at 0:05

2 Answers 2


The context of this claim: how did the New England colonists view the land they were settling?

The Eastern seaboard of America had four major strains of colonists: Quakers and Cavaliers, who emphasized living in harmony with the native Americans, Scots-Irish in the South, who did not care much about natives at all, and the famous Puritans/Separatists, whose entire worldview was very strongly religious. Of these groups, the comparison of Indians to Canaanites/Amalekites which is being claimed here would be coming solely from the Puritans.

The Puritans were indeed making a metaphor between their journey from England to New England, and the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt and into Palestine. However, they were entirely aware that this was only a metaphor. There have been some Protestants who literally believed that the Old Testament's message applied to them (notably the Boers of South Africa), but the Puritans were very much aware that they were living in the present day.

We can find proof of this in the Cavalier Thomas Morton’s book The New English Canaan (1637). Morton was imprisoned and banished by the Puritans, and referred to himself as a Canaanite. He described the natural bounty of New England as far closer to the appearance of temperate Canaan than the desert of Israel, and proposed that natives and colonists ought to reject the self-appointed "chosen tribe" (Puritans) and their "New Israel" (Plymouth) and live together in a multicultural New Canaan, which is the origin of the present-day city of New Canaan, Connecticut.

Morton was not renouncing Christianity or Englishness by taking up the Canaanite cause. Nowhere in his book do we see a hint that "Israel" might want to go to war with him. Rather, he was using the Puritans' metaphor against them, in a way that he was probably expecting to hit home and get on their nerves.

With that background, we can now answer the question.

Cotton Mather is one of the most famous Puritan preachers. He lived during King Philip's War, which was a legitimate all out war between Englishmen and Native allies against other Indians. During the war he gave sermons encouraging Puritan forces to take up arms, though it might be against their first instinct, for the sake of the community.

From "a discourse delivered unto some part of the forces engaged in the just war of New-England against the northern & eastern Indians":

Let me mind you, that while you Fight, Wee'l pray. Every good man will do it, in secret and in private every day; and publick Supplications also will be always going for you. We will keep in the Mount with our Hands lifted up, while you are in the Field with your Lives in your Hands, against the Amalek that is now annoying this Israel in the Wilderness. It was the Watch Word which a Battel once Commenc'd withal Now for the Fruit of Prayer!

From the context we can understand that this was a handy combination of the prominent Israel metaphor with the actual situation of war. It was not all Indians which were compared to "Amalek" but only the enemies of the Plymouth settlement. In peacetime, as far as I can tell through searching, the Indians were not ordinarily considered as akin to Canaanites or Amelekites or otherwise fair game for victimizing. The Puritans sometimes made allies, sometimes made enemies, with the natives. Practical political situations, not sense of religious mission, determined the type of rhetoric that was used.

Conclusion: No, the early New England settlers never actually assumed the "right" to treat Indians this way. They enjoyed comparing themselves to Israel in sermons, which included analogizing enemy Indians to "Amalek", but that did not enter into their legal or political calculations.

  • 1
    @DavePhD If I were to construct an answer, it would look something like this, but with different examples. Winthrop, Wise, and Cotton all speak inclusively of the brotherhood of man and necessity to do good acts with them. In practice, Indians are afforded certain rights of due process, and Winthrop goes as far as to command free education for Indian children.
    – user36356
    Jan 12, 2017 at 15:28
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    @DavePhD John Williams, in the Redemptive Captive (his town outpost was overrun by Indians, and he was kidnapped with some of his family, while others were murdered) regularly ascribes God's mercy as being implanted into the Indians. I would urge you to read Perry Miller's Anthology The American Puritans, that brings all these tracts together.
    – user36356
    Jan 12, 2017 at 15:31

In Bancroft's book, the quotation marks around the phrase "a right to treat the Indians on the foot of Canaanites or Amalekites" do not indicate that this is quotation of the first planters. Instead, as suggested in the left margin of the book, George Berkeley is being quoted.

According to his Sermon Preached ... Friday the 18th of February 1731 :

An antient Antipathy to the Indian, whom, it seems, our first Planters, (therein as in certain other Particulars affecting to imitate Jews rather than Christians) imagined they had the right to treat on the Foot of Canaanites or Amalekites...

So this is an Irish person, George Berkeley, making an accusation about the first Planters, rather than a quotation of the first planters themselves.

  • 2
    It may be worth clarifying that this is a "yes" to the question at the end of the OP and a "probably not" to the question in the title. ("Probably not" because the "it seems" in the sermon surely indicates that the preacher is giving his own assessment rather than quoting an official statement, and because the language is specific enough that the quotations in the OP are probably derived from the sermon.) Jan 10, 2017 at 18:05
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    @GarethMcCaughan I'm hoping for a better answer to come along. I'm wondering if Bancroft is just referring to this sermon, or if both the sermon and Bancroft are referring to some even earlier text.
    – DavePhD
    Jan 10, 2017 at 18:16
  • Great deduction. It did not fit with either Avery's analysis or mine. But this is much more definitive.
    – user36356
    Jan 13, 2017 at 19:30

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