New Haven's First Official Act: A Severed Head On The Green
"The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation," wrote Albert Jay Nock in Our Enemy, The State. His words haunted me as I researched just who owns New Haven’s Green today. The records of New Haven Colony and Plantation in the mid-17th century are a story of confiscation and conquest.
Colonists trickled into the area now known as New Haven in 1638. Within months of their arrival, they had purchased vast tracts of land from local Indians in exchange for coats, axes, knives and other kitchenware. It turns out that the Dutch purchase of Manhattan for some $24 in trinkets was not the only epic bargain in North American land deals.
In New Haven, the settlers quickly formed themselves into a community in a meeting at Newman’s barn in 1639, agreeing to establish a government that recognized only the Old and New Testaments as the source of law. Only churchmen could become full citizens. New Haven became a theocracy.
Several months passed without action on this agreement to form an actual government, however. Then events appear to have forced the hand of the colonists. An Englishman was killed, a man by the name of Abraham Finch. Three other Englishmen were also killed "in the boat or shallop on the Connecticut river." A child off Mr. Swaine’s at Wethersfield was kidnaped.
The colonists suspected that one man had committed all these crimes, "an Indian called Messutunck, alias Nepaupuck." Although the colonial record is sparse, it is not difficult to imagine something like panic settling on the colony. Englishmen are killed, a child is missing, the boundaries of the plantation’s territory must have seemed alive with menace. A bold stroke could restore order and calm. But how to strike it without a government?
On October 25, 1639, the compact created at Newman’s barn was transformed into a government. All church members eligible for full citizenship swore an oath of loyalty to the new government. A chief magistrate was selected, Theophilus Eaton, the lead purchaser of the property now owned by the new plantation and colony. Eaton was to govern for one year, after which time a new election would take place. Four subordinate magistrates were selected to assist him. New officers would be selected at an annual meeting of the "Generall Court." "[T]he word of God shall be the onely rule to be attended unto in ordering the affayres of government in this plantation," the colonial record reports.
The very next day, Nepaupuck was arrested under the authority of a warrant issued by the brand new marshal, Robert Seely. Nepaupuck was arrested and pinioned, most likely on the area now known as the Green. Two days after his arrest, and a trial in which Nepaupuck at various points denied the allegations and then confessed, the court had issued its judgment: Nepaupck was to die for his crimes. "[A]ccordingly," the colonial records report, "his head was cut off the next day and pitched upon a pole in the markett place."
That a trial took place at all is sufficient proof that the rule of law can serve as a civilizing influence. Far better some judicial process than mere vigilantism. But the trial looks suspect from afar. Colonial strangers had appeared in the region. An Indian chief had sold title to the land on which his people had lived for time immemorial. Suddenly new land claims and forms of life were taking root in an area that had not known about such things as title to land, church membership, and rule by a foreign people. It is no wonder that there was violence. A people displaced rarely yields its traditional way of life without struggle.
New Haven was purchased for a trifle. A government of colonists created. A native American was killed, his head displayed in the town market place, what later became known as the Green, as a warning to others: There is a new sovereign in town. New rules. New sources of right.
I read about Nepaupuck’s head and I keep thinking about Nock’s observation about the state’s origin in conquest and confiscation. The early history of New Haven suggests Nock got it right. An ancient people’s land was taken by means of a deed trading property for incidental goods; once title passed, the new power acted decisively to protect its claim, killing a man and displaying his head on a pike to illustrate to all who had conquered the land.
The very first public ornament on New Haven’s Green was a severed human head. The owners of the land wanted this symbol to tell the world who now controlled the land. Confiscation and conquest. Even now, descendants of these early colonists claim to own the Green, and call upon the State to enforce their claims of ownership and control. The state is an odd creature, a thing of violence, terror and tragic necessity.
Each time I pass by the Green nowadays I keep looking for the exact spot on which Nepaupuck’s severed head was displayed. The image haunts.