History of the Seal and Flag of the State of Massachusetts
by David Detmold, Montague
For the past 34 years, Representative Byron Rushing, (D – Suffolk), with the support of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, has introduced and re-introduced legislation, every two years, to set up a commission to recommend changes to the Massachusetts State Flag and Seal. And every two years since 1984, that legislation has been bottled up in committees, and never passed.
The bill would set up a commission to include state legislators and representatives of Native Nations within the borders of Massachusetts to investigate changes to the state flag and seal: the recommendations of that commission would have to be approved by the legislature in order to change the current state flag and seal.
In order to document relevant history for state legislators who may wish to work toward the passage of this long stalled legislation – and for anyone in Massachusetts concerned about the representation of a Colonial broadsword suspended over the head of a Native American man as the official symbols of Massachusetts – I have researched archives provided by the Secretary of State and State Library special collection and at the Statehouse in Boston, where documents pertaining to the state flag and seal are held.
For many years, the state flag and seal of Massachusetts has been a source of controversy. It is seen by many Native people, and by other residents as an offensive symbol of white supremacy and the historical oppression of Native people in Massachusetts and our nation as a whole. The contemporaneous records of the deliberations of the state legislature at key points when the Massachusetts seal was first adopted and subsequently changed are scant, but here is the history as I have found it.
The state motto: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietam has remained unchanged since first adopted by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1775. Literally, the motto reads: “With a sword, She seeks peace only under liberty.” But the state motto is more commonly, and loosely, translated: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
Authorship of the motto has been ascribed to Algernon Sydney, an English soldier/patriot, who penned the phrase in his 1659 “Book of Mottoes.”
Paul Revere’s Design
Unlike the motto, the state seal has been changed on multiple occasions. The General Court established a commission to consider a state seal in 1775.
Five years later, Revere was again commissioned to engrave a new Massachusetts state seal, to be chosen by committee and approved by the Council and Governor John Hancock.
Come Over and Help Us
With the Revolutionary War over and the American colonies victorious, the state seal adopted by the new state of Massachusetts in 1780 was modeled directly on the original 1629 seal of the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay – which featured a Native American man (generally considered to be an Algonquin, though not necessarily a member of any specific tribe native to Massachusetts) standing with a bow in his left hand, and a down-turned arrow (signifying a peaceable, or pacified, Native American) in his right hand.
In the original 1629 version, the Native man is depicted in a “state of nature,” wearing shrubbery over his groin but otherwise naked, with no dwellings or other tribal members pictured in background. In the original 1629 seal, the Native American man with the downward pointed arrow in his hand had these words issuing from his mouth in a speech banner: “Come Over and Help Us.”
Massachusetts Bay Colony: “Built on Bones”
The bitterness of that particular motto and seal was perhaps lost to the proprietors of the Company of Massachusetts Bay, though not to history. Granted only a decade after a general plague (of smallpox, or some disease of European origin to which the Native population held no immunity) had so decimated the once populous lands and villages of Massachusetts’ original inhabitants that, as historian Edward O’Donnell writes in The Past Lane: “We get a sense of the scale of devastation from a vivid account recorded by a Captain Thomas Dermer. He traveled from present day Maine to Massachusetts in 1619, and when he arrived he found, ‘ancient plantations, not long since populous, now utterly void; in other places a remnant [of the Native population] remains, but not free of sickness.’” Mortality estimates for Native tribes of coastal New England range from 50% to 90% from this one epidemic. So few tribal members survived in the coastal regions of the Northeast that their dead remained unburied in many areas. When some historians refer to the early settlements of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Company as colonies “built on bones” they do not exaggerate much.
Thomas Lechford, the first attorney to practice and the first to be disbarred in Massachusetts, recorded in 1642, “There hath not been sent forth by any Church to learn the Native language, or to instruct them in the Religion.” A wealthy landowner in England, John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his Modell of Christian Charity spoke freely of his concept of men “highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjeccion.” The Puritans held Native slaves – or “servants” (a record of Boston’s Gentry: ca. 1634-36, records a total of 97 of these). The prominent Puritan minister John Cotton made bold to preach, in his farewell sermon “God’s Promise to His Plantation” delivered to Gov. Winthrop and his associates before they set sail for Massachusetts Bay from Southampton in 1630, that since the land they were sailing to was ordained for their use by God, they need not buy the land nor seek permission to use it from anyone but God. As he concludes that infamous sermon, Cotton tells the Puritan emigrants, “Offend not the poore Natives, but as you partake in their land, so make them partakers of your precious faith: as you reape their temporalls, so feede them with your spiritualls.”
Rather than coming over to help the Natives to a foreign religion, the Puritans contented themselves mainly with helping themselves to the Natives’ liberty, their lands, and, over time, their heritage. Though the pleasant story of Wampanoag sachem Ousamequin’s (Massassoit) succor of the starving Pilgrims in the nearby Plymouth Bay Colony is generally where Native studies begin and end in the Commonwealth’s public schools today, the less savory sequel of his eldest son Wamsutta’s death immediately after being taken captive at gunpoint by Major Josiah Winslow and held for three days at Duxbury in 1662 on suspicion of rebellion is less well known. Wamsutta’s death was the proximate cause of the outbreak of war led jointly by his younger brother Metacom (King Phillip to the colonists), his sister-in-law Wetamoo, and many other Native leaders of Massachusetts in 1675, which resulted in the most grievous per capita loss of life of any war fought by the English or their descendents on this continent ever since. However, with Metacom’s death and beheading in 1676, the Native people of the Commonwealth suffered far worse in defeat than the colonists had in achieving victory. The Native people of Massachusetts were reduced at that time to peonage and lost rights or title to the all but a tiny remnant of their lands.
During the winter of 1675, thousands of Native people, mainly Christianized “praying Indians” from towns like Natick, were abandoned to the elements at an “internment camp” at Deer Island in Boston Harbor, where hundreds froze to death. Two hundred and seventy years before the infamous Korematsu v. United States decision legalized the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, (a decision ultimately repudiated by the Supreme Court in 2018), Massachusetts was blazing the trail for the illegitimate removal and internment of noncombatant Native peoples in North America. Many of their survivors were sold into outright slavery locally or in the West Indies.
Trophies of War
The heads of Metacom and Weetamoo were placed on pikes on the town commons in Plymouth and Taunton, respectively. Metacom’s skull remained on display for decades.
Starting in 1689, Massachusetts placed a bounty on the scalps of Native men, with the price originally set at 40 pounds sterling. By 1722, the Massachusetts colonial legislature had raised that bounty to 100 pounds sterling for the scalps of Native men over the age of 12, half that for the scalps of Native women and children. Native scalps were displayed in local museums such as the Peabody in Boston until the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed by the federal government in 1990.
Wards of the State
For centuries, Native Americans were kept alienated from their rights in Massachusetts, where they were classed legally as wards of the state. Jeremiah Evarts, in his pseudonymous William Penn Letters, wrote in 1829, “For about two hundred years, the laws have prohibited Indians from selling lands to whites, within this Commonwealth. This restriction, designed originally to protect the natives against fraud, has, upon the whole, had an unfavorable effect upon their happiness… Nor have these prohibitory laws had even the poor effect to protect them from the rapacity of their white neighbors. These have contrived… to get hold of their pleasant and fertile valleys in a very surprising manner, considering the strictness of the laws. “But the great ground of complaint is, that no native Indian, or descendant, is allowed by us to be a man, or to make himself a man, whatever may be his disposition and capacity. They are all kept in a state of vassalage, under officers, appointed sometimes by the Governor, and sometimes by the Legislature. The spot of his own ground, which he may cultivate, is annually rented out to the Indian by an overseer; and provisions are doled out to the tribe according to the discretion of ‘Guardians,’ ‘Trustees,’ etc….. They are treated more like dogs than men. A state of tutelage, extending from cradle to grave; a state of utter dependence, breaks down every manly attribute, and makes human creatures, designed to walk erect, creeping things.” Itinerant Methodist preacher and Pequot author William Apess, after being jailed for 30 days for his role in fomenting the so-called Mashpee Rebellion of 1833-34, wherein the Mashpee Wampanoag attempted to nullify the unjust laws of the Commonwealth that kept them in vassalage and to reassert their long denied sovereign rights, wrote: “The Marshpee (sic) Indians have always paid their full share of taxes, and very great ones they have been. They have defrayed the expense of two town meetings a year, and one of two of the white men whose presence was necessary lived twenty-five miles off. The meetings lasted three or four days at a time, during which these men lived upon the best, at our cost, and charged us three dollars a day and twenty-five cents a mile, traveling expenses, going and coming, into the bargain. This amounts to thirty-five dollars a trip; and as there were, as has already been said, two visitations a year, it appears that we have paid seventy dollars a year to bring one visitor, whose absence would have been much more agreeable to us than his presence. Extend this calculation to the number of seven persons, and the other expenses of our misgovernment, and perhaps some other expenditures not mentioned, and see what a sum our tax will amount to.”
Royal Seals of Massachusetts
Edmund Garrett’s Design – the current MA State Flag and Seal
Though the state seal has varied in the details of its representation since, the basics of its design, which now included a Colonial broadsword poised above the Native American’s head, has not changed. The design and its individual elements were formally codified by an act of the legislature in 1885, and has not changed since. Illustrator Edmund Garrett created the enduring design for our present version of the state seal, in close consult with Secretary of State William Olin, and it was formally adopted on June 14th
– David Detmold Town Meeting Member Montague, Massachusetts April 6th , 2017