Navigation and Murder on the “Saltwater Frontier”

Early America historian Andrew C. Lipman’s article Murder on the Saltwater Frontier: The Death of John Oldham is much more than an investigation of an English mariner’s murder by Indians which started the Pequot War. Lipman also addresses the navigation practices and the trade relations between the Europeans and Native Americans. Europeans believed they were master navigators for having traveled across the Atlantic Ocean (Lipman 274) but, the Native Americans were no strangers to navigation. My colleague, Matt Everett, mentions the navigation abilities of the Native Americans in his post, which I agree with. I believe the Native Americans had to be more diverse in their navigation skills. Not only did they need to know how to negotiate the coastline (Lipman 274), but it was crucial that they needed to know how to traverse the inland waterways especially during the different seasons of the year. So the Europeans relied heavily on the Native Americans as their guides and pilots when they traveled through the northeastern rivers.

During the 1600s it was fundamental for both the Europeans and the Native Americans to establish of trade relations. But trading with Europeans, according to Lipman, caused old rivalries to flare up between Native Americans especially between the Narragansett and Pequot. This is where the stories of the Englishmen John Oldham and John Stone come into play. Both Stone and Oldham were killed by Natives. As a result, the killing of both of these men led to the Pequot War. But both of these men have nothing in common. According to Lipman, Stone was a vagabond, adulterer, and pirate who terrorized the Connecticut River (Lipman 283) and was dispatched by the Pequot, but Oldham was a well-respected and well liked trader (Lipman 286). As it turns out that members from Manisses and Niantics, who were subordinates of the Narragansett, murdered Oldham. Lipman suggests that sachems form the Manisses and Niantics were fed up being minor players and tried to increase their influence in the region (Lipman 288).

Now this sort of begs the question. Why did the English want go to war with the Pequot? Was it over these men? My colleague Diana Tran suggests that the Native Americans were constantly targeted as soon as the Europeans arrived. I disagree with this explanation. During this time the English wanted to expand their territory and saw the Pequot and the Dutch as obstacles for their domination of the North Atlantic. So the murder of the two men provided the perfect excuse to go to war. Lipman states that the English could have gone to war against the Narragansett but, since the Pequot were bigger and carried more influence throughout the region the English decided to go to war against the Pequot (Lipman 291). I fully agree with that assumption. I believe the reason the English did not go to against the Narragansett was because the English were friendly with Narragansett and they needed them as allies as well as for the fur and wampum trade.


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