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Death in Colonial North America: Cross-Cultural Encounters

Summary and Keywords

Death is universal yet is experienced in culturally specific ways. Because of this, when individuals in colonial North America encountered others from different cultural backgrounds, they were curious about how unfamiliar mortuary practices resembled and differed from their own. This curiosity spawned communication across cultural boundaries. The resulting knowledge sometimes facilitated peaceful relations between groups, while at other times it helped one group dominate another.

Colonial North Americans endured disastrously high mortality rates caused by disease, warfare, and labor exploitation. At the same time, death was central to the religions of all residents: Indians, Africans, and Europeans. Deathways thus offer an unmatched way to understand the colonial encounter from the participants’ perspectives.

Keywords: death, deathways, American Indians, Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Protestants, disease, encounters, syncretism


In the centuries following 1492, peoples from Europe, Africa, and the Americas came together in unprecedented ways and extraordinary numbers. As they fashioned the links that constituted the early modern Atlantic world, people were curious about the cultural practices of the groups they encountered. No set of practices generated more interest or comment than deathways, a term that encompasses deathbed scenes, corpse preparation, burial practices, funerals, mourning, and commemoration. Reactions to unfamiliar deathways formed an intricate dance between perceptions of difference and similarity. People used perceived differences to mark boundaries between themselves and others, and they used perceived similarities to reach beyond those boundaries and communicate across cultures.

Residents of the early modern Atlantic world participated in a profusion of cross-cultural encounters and observed one another with a combination of curiosity and concern. Placing death at the center of an analysis of those encounters offers one great advantage: it allows us, better perhaps than any other conceptual category, to see the world as the participants themselves viewed it. There are four reasons for this. First, death was ubiquitous. Colonial North Americans endured disastrously high mortality rates caused by disease, warfare, and labor exploitation. Second, all the religious systems of the groups involved in colonial encounters centered on explaining death and the afterlife. Third, because of this, when individuals met strangers, they were curious about the outsiders’ deathways. And fourth, deathways leave traces in the material record that cultural forms such as music and sexuality do not, and therefore historians can learn about the practices of even the nonliterate.

These sources reveal the important role of real and perceived cultural parallels in cross-cultural encounters. When people of different cultures came together in the New World, they were always aware of the differences between their own and the outsiders’ mortuary practices. But they also noticed deep parallels in both sets of death rituals. People often recognized that they shared with others an attention to proper corpse preparation, an attitude of respect toward a loved one’s remains, a desire to remember the dead with speeches and sacred rituals, and the experience of grief at the death of one’s friends and family members. Such parallels helped facilitate communication and understanding. But the context of colonial encounters was largely exploitative, so the knowledge and understanding gained through parallel deathways were often, ironically, also put to manipulative ends.

Once Indians, Africans, and Europeans had more extensive experience with one another’s cultural practices in the New World, the primary dynamic among the groups shifted toward syncretism, or the blending of two or more cultural forms. The emergence of new, North American deathways played out over several centuries in ways particular to the specific mix of cultures in a given locale. This process of syncretism demonstrates the importance of power in colonial encounters, because it was Indians and Africans whose deathways changed the most in the New World. European deathways, by contrast, underwent relatively minor changes in the transfer to the Americas.

This article demonstrates how these dynamics played out in five different locations: the Chesapeake, New France, Barbados, New England, and New York. The geographical settings move the story forward in time from the early 17th century to the end of the 18th. In the first two regions, the primary dynamic is between familiar and unfamiliar deathways and how they were used to facilitate communication. In the other three regions, syncretism (and the lack thereof) is the key process.

The Chesapeake

In the first years of the 17th century, two dozen small Algonquian Indian tribes along the western shore of Chesapeake Bay were united under the paramount chief Powhatan to form the Powhatan Confederacy. After the English founded Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, both the natives and newcomers used knowledge about the other group’s deathways to gain strategic advantage.

The English were surprised by how deadly Jamestown’s environment proved to be. In the short-lived Roanoke colony in present-day North Carolina, mortality rates were quite low. Whereas only four of one hundred eight Roanoke colonists died from 1585 to 1586, the English in Jamestown perished at a much higher rate. Forty-six of one hundred five Jamestown colonists were dead within four months of the 1607 landfall. Things went from bad to worse in subsequent seasons. Of 220 English colonists at Jamestown in the fall of 1609, only about 100 remained alive after the winter colonists called the “Starving Time.”

The Powhatan Indians also died in great numbers after 1607, mostly from English-introduced diseases; historians can only guess at the actual mortality rate. In 1608 a werowance or “king” of Virginia’s Eastern Shore told the colonists a tale that emblematizes the social disruption Old World diseases caused in Indian country. The werowance said that two children had recently died and been buried. Their parents, against all conventions, disinterred the small corpses. This was a major transgression of Chesapeake Algonquian practices, which for non-elites ordinarily involved earth burial in small pits, with the corpse wrapped in animal skins and reed mats; disinterment was never the norm. The werowance explained that all the Indians who viewed the corpses soon died, “and not any one escaped.”1 The high mortality caused by Old World diseases led the werowance to seek an explanation in a breach of ordinary burial practices. The bereaved parents’ act of disinterring their children’s corpses was so unusual that the werowance believed the gods were punishing his people for it.

Deathways also proved a flash point of conflict between the two groups. In September 1609, with food running short, the colony’s leader, John Smith, ordered several groups to leave Jamestown and try to live off the land. The exiles soon began to demand food from Indians. The Nansemond Indians, a member of the Powhatan Confederacy, balked at the request. The English tried to take possession of the island on which the Nansemonds lived, and in response the Indians attacked. Retaliating against the Indians’ most sacred sites, the English desecrated the Nansemonds’ burial temples, the structures in which Chesapeake Algonquians preserved their elites. When a leader died, the body was disemboweled and laid upon a scaffold to dry. The dried bones were then disarticulated, bundled in animal skins, and placed into a wooden structure on stilts guarded by an idol. Colonist George Percy proudly recounted, “We beat the Savages out of the island, burned their houses, ransacked their temples, [and] took down the corpses of their dead king from off their tombs.”2

Pillaging the temples turned out to be a terrible miscalculation. In response, the Powhatans declared “holy war” against the English.3 This low-intensity war would result in the deaths of at least two hundred Indians and three hundred colonists before it was over in 1614.

A brief detente began in 1614, when Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas married John Rolfe, but Indian frustration continued to smolder as the English—eager to put every possible acre under tobacco cultivation—increased pressure on Powhatan hunting and fishing territory. When the elderly Powhatan died in 1618, he was succeeded as paramount chief by his younger brother, Opechancanough. The successor strategized on how to be rid of the English, and he opted for a surprise attack. On the morning of March 22, 1622, a killing spree began as Powhatan Indians attacked English plantations from one end of the colony to the other. By the end of the day, some 330 colonists—more than one-fourth of Virginia’s residents—lay dead.

Historians have long noted that the Indians used their familiarity with English lifeways to perpetrate the killings. Because the Indians had interacted with the English on an intimate basis for a decade and a half, they knew just how to surprise the colonists. In some cases the Indians sat down to breakfast with the colonists and, when finished, coolly picked up their hosts’ tools and weapons and began the slaughter.

But commentators have not remarked that Indians also used their knowledge of English deathways to give their killings maximum impact. In numerous violent interactions with colonists, the Indians had learned that the English held corpses in high regard. The English treated corpses reverently in their funeral rituals, gently washing the body before shrouding it and placing it gently into a coffin. So, to drive home their message that the English must leave Virginia, the Powhatans ripped apart their victims’ corpses. They saved some of the most brutal treatment for George Thorp, the Anglican missionary who tried to change Powhatan deathways.

The English used the Powhatan attack as license to begin their own extermination campaign against the Indians. They framed their motivations in terms of deathways. Because so many colonists were killed in the attack, numerous corpses remained unburied, a stinging transgression of English cultural norms, by which only suicides and excommunicants were denied burial in consecrated ground. As explained by Samuel Purchas, the great propagandist for English colonization, these unburied victims demanded a furious response. “Their carcasses, the dispersed bones of their and their countrymen’s since-murdered carcasses, have taken a mortal immortal possession, and being dead, speak, proclaim, and cry, ‘This our earth is truly English, and therefore this Land is justly yours O English.’”4 Thus did the victims of March 22 cry out, at least in Purchas’s imagination, for the dispossession of the Indians. As the historian Edmund Morgan has written, “within two or three years of the massacre the English had avenged the deaths of that day many times over.”5

New France

In New France, by contrast, cross-cultural knowledge about deathways served as a means of understanding and communication for a decade or so before being turned to exploitative ends. Naming the area “New France,” of course, erases centuries of native occupation. The area under discussion here is better referred to as Wendake, the homeland of the four-nation Wendat (Huron) Confederacy. Wendats were Iroquoian-speaking agriculturalists; some 21,000 lived in longhouses near Georgian Bay in present-day Ontario. Like a fair number of native groups across North America, they practiced “secondary burial,” a phrase that refers to corpses undergoing two sets of burial rituals separated by a period of time. In the case of the Wendats, the first procedure involved placing a corpse in a bark “coffin” on top of a scaffold some 8 to 10 feet above the ground. The body, thus protected from most scavengers, decomposed on the scaffold in a specially demarcated cemetery, under the watchful eye of the “keeper of the graves.”

Wendats called the secondary burial ritual Yandatsa, the Kettle, to suggest the great feasting and sharing of food that always accompanied the ceremony. The French would later call it the Feast of the Dead. Every ten or twelve years, when a village was going to move its location because the surrounding soil was depleted, residents removed the corpses from the scaffolds and prepared them for reburial in a communal ossuary. Families found the corpses of their loved ones, scraped off any remaining flesh, disarticulated the bones, and placed them into a beaver-skin bundle. Wendats from around the nation brought from their own cemeteries the corpses of individuals who had been born in the relocating village. The ritual was thus a symbol of village and national unity, with as many as five hundred to one thousand bodies placed into a communal ossuary without any distinctions based on rank, prestige, or sex.

One might imagine that when French Jesuit missionaries arrived in Wendake in the 1620s they found this unfamiliar two-stage ritual revolting, with its flesh-scraping and handling of skulls with the hair still attached. To the contrary, the Catholic Jesuits “admired” the “magnificent” Feast of the Dead, declaring that it was “heartening to see” the Wendats show such devotion to the deceased.6 This sympathetic understanding of Wendat rituals emerged from parallel Catholic and Wendat understandings of death and human remains. Both groups adhered to religions that focused on the mysteries of death and the afterlife. Both believed that a dead person’s soul traveled to the afterlife. Both believed that careful corpse preparation and elaborate mortuary rituals helped ensure safe transit of the soul to the supernatural realm. And both believed in the power of human bones. Whereas the Wendats had their elaborate ritual of primary scaffold burial and later ossuary interment, the French had their own secondary burial practice. Ordinary French men and women were buried in large churchyard pits; when those bodies decomposed and the crowded graveyard needed more room, the dry bones were removed and placed into charnel houses, where the living prayed for the souls of the deceased. Moreover, the French partook of Catholicism’s belief that saints’ relics, including bones, aided the efficacy of intercessory prayers.

In 1636, Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf attended the Bear Nation’s Feast of the Dead. He wrote a long and sympathetic account of the ritual for a European audience in his order’s annual survey of missionary activity, the Jesuit Relations. In his description, Brébeuf emphasized the tenderness the Wendats showed as they prepared corpses for burial. About one woman who attended to her father, Brébeuf reported that “she combed his hair and handled his bones, one after the other, with as much affection as if she would have desired to restore life to him.”7 With this and similar passages, Brébeuf tried to shame his European readers into adhering to Counter-Reformation Catholicism’s high standards for devotion to the dead. If “savages” cared for the deceased with such love and attention, he implied, shouldn’t the good men and women of France do the same?

At the end of Brébeuf’s long description, he revealed that his admiration for the Feast of the Dead extended only so far. While praying for the fifteen or twenty Christian Wendats included among the seven hundred in the ossuary, Brébeuf beseeched his god that “this feast will cease, or will be only for Christians, and will take place with ceremonies as sacred as the ones we saw are foolish and useless.”8

Brébeuf was in Wendake as a Catholic missionary, not an anthropologist; he carefully studied Wendat deathways so he could use that knowledge to advance the cause of Christianity in New France. After the Feast, Brébeuf and the other Jesuits continued their efforts to teach Wendats about Catholicism. They centered their efforts on mortuary rituals, especially deathbed scenes. Catholics had a long Ars moriendi (art of dying) tradition, which stipulated that the dying could choose between good and evil on the deathbed. It was thus a highly charged moment, ripe for teaching new converts about the basics of Catholic doctrine. In the 1630s there were more deathbed scenes than one could count in Wendake, as epidemics tore through the confederacy in 1634, 1636–1637, and 1639–1640. The leading killers seem to have been measles, strep infection, and smallpox. Wendats suffered an extremely high death rate from these Old World diseases; by the end of 1640 their population was down to nine thousand, a decrease of roughly 60 percent in less than a decade.

But the French were not the only ones to use deathways to further their goals. In the wake of the terrible epidemics, Wendat traditionalists employed deathways to resist Catholicism. Visionaries reported that Jesuit teachings about the afterlife were “fables.” Rather than a realm of peace and happiness, heaven was a place where Christian Indians were tortured with “firebrands and burning torches, with cruelties and torments inconceivable.”9 This was a new sort of resistance to the Jesuits’ teachings. Not simply indifference, it was an ideological counterattack aimed straight at the heart of what the Jesuits felt was most appealing about Christianity: its vision of a glorious afterlife for the saved.

In 1649, Iroquois warriors destroyed Wendake and killed Jean de Brébeuf. Roughly three hundred Christian Wendats accompanied the surviving Jesuits several hundred miles to the safety of the French settlement at Quebec. The displaced Indians’ continued practice of Catholicism—albeit one inflected with Wendat sensibilities, such as giving gifts to mourners and burying the corpse in a bark-lined tomb—testified to the partial success of Brébeuf’s strategy of focusing on deathways as a conduit for Christianity. By far the larger part of the Wendat diaspora, however, joined their historical enemies, the Iroquois. Several thousand Wendats endured grueling initiation ceremonies so they could continue speaking an Iroquoian language, worshipping sky and water spirits, and venerating human remains.


Barbados was a long way from England’s mainland North American colonies, but it shared much with the plantation societies that would emerge in South Carolina and other southern colonies. Because the written and archaeological records about people of African descent are more abundant for 17th-century Barbados than for the mainland colonies, the island is a useful place to examine African American deathways in the early years of colonization. The evidence demonstrates that in the first century of slavery on Barbados, African American mortuary practices drew heavily on African precedents. Syncretic African American deathways showing the influence of Christianity would not emerge until later.

Amerindians first migrated to Barbados from South America around 400 ce. When the Spanish reconnoitered the island in the early 16th century, the newcomers stayed only long enough to take some slaves and unwittingly introduce Old World diseases. By 1541, the Spanish noted that all the island’s indigenous residents were dead. The Spanish then lost interest in the island, focusing on their other Caribbean holdings.

English colonists arrived in 1627 and found an uninhabited island. The English were attracted by the island’s high percentage of arable land, experimenting with cotton and tobacco before discovering the key to the island’s prosperity: sugar. By 1700, Barbadian plantation owners had an insatiable appetite for enslaved labor, importing about three thousand Africans per year to toil in the hot sun. But these exploited laborers did not hail from random locations all over Africa. The Royal African Company’s concentration of forts and trading posts along the African coast from Accra to Lagos meant that in the first two decades of the 18th century, the large majority of Barbadian slaves came from two regions: the Bight of Benin (39.5 percent) and the Gold Coast (31.2 percent).10

This geographical context had a strong impact on Barbadian deathways: because slaves had been taken from a relatively compact stretch of West Africa, from present-day Ghana to Nigeria, there were enough underlying similarities in their deathways that they were usually able to agree on what constituted proper burial practices, which sometimes included a “supernatural inquest” where the living tried to determine if witchcraft had killed the person, and which almost always included earth burial with the corpse laid on its back. In addition to the cultural similarities of their places of origin, because of the high death rate among Caribbean slaves and the continued influx of newly arrived slaves, a very high percentage of Barbadian slaves around 1700 had been born in Africa. Plantation owners in this period cared very little about their slaves’ spiritual lives, so they allowed slaves a great deal of autonomy in organizing their own burials, as long as the rites did not interfere with the plantation’s work routines. Two burials from around the year 1700, excavated from Newton Plantation on the island’s southern shore, demonstrate the influence of African beliefs on slave deathways.

The first involved a young woman, about twenty years old, who had been behaving abnormally. Unknown to the slave community, she was suffering from severe lead poisoning, which may have caused her to experience seizures and episodic paralysis. When she died, her fellow slaves gave her a burial that followed West African protocols for burying a witch. In the slave cemetery, a part of the plantation unsuitable for cultivation, they dug a shallow pit, only a foot and a half deep and not quite long enough for the corpse to be laid in fully outstretched. They placed her into this pit face-down: the only prone burial of the 104 excavated at Newton, and one of the only prone slave burials found in the New World. Wary of the deceased witch’s power, the slave community marked her grave in a singular fashion. They covered her grave with a low, circular mound of soil, about 25 feet in diameter and 3 feet high. During the next century, a period when hundreds of other slaves were buried in the cemetery, many only 20 feet away, not a single individual was placed within the area demarcated by the witch’s earthen mound. The raised soil served for generations as a warning of the ignoble burial that awaited suspected witches.11

At about the same time, Newton’s slave community gathered for a very different funeral, one that celebrated the life of an esteemed healer. When this fifty-year-old man died, his friends and family members dug a grave along an east–west axis in the slave cemetery. Into the grave they placed the healer on his back, with his arms at his sides and his head pointed toward the east. Many slaves born in Africa believed in the “transmigration of the soul,” that after death the person’s spirit returned to its place of birth. This comforting belief may have shaped the healer’s burial orientation: Africa lies east of Barbados, so the burial’s easterly heading may have allowed the soul to escape in that direction.

Most distinctive about the healer’s burial, however, was the range of items that adorned his corpse, mirroring the use of grave goods for esteemed persons in many West African societies. Of Newton’s one hundred four excavated graves, only nineteen had any artifacts associated with them, some as meager as “one button” or “one metal fastener.”12 Newton’s healer, by contrast, was buried wearing three rings on his left-hand middle finger, a copper bracelet on his right forearm, and two brass bracelets on his left arm. He had a 6-inch knife and a buff-colored, short-stemmed earthenware pipe of a kind found along Africa’s Gold Coast. And around his neck the healer wore a necklace strung with seven Indian Ocean cowrie shells, five vertebrae from a large fish, twenty-one dog teeth, fourteen European glass beads, and a large (4.2 centimeter long) reddish-orange carnelian bead from southern India. With its rare objects testifying to the reach of a globalizing economy, the necklace was likely a central element in the healer’s magical arsenal.13

The funerals of Newton’s witch and healer, c. 1700, partook of African and African-inspired rituals, beliefs, and material culture. There is no evidence of any Christian influence on either of these burials, which is representative of the island as a whole at the time. However, it is important to note that not all West African mortuary customs were transplanted to the New World. Some material and ritual components of African deathways did not make it to the plantations of the Caribbean and American South. For example, mortuary terra-cottas—figurines over a foot tall and sporting a human face—which formed an important part of the material culture of death along Africa’s Gold Coast, do not seem to have been used in the Americas. But enough African attitudes toward death crossed the Atlantic in the minds and hearts of slaves to allow for the continuation of many African deathways during the first century of New World plantation slavery.

New England

In New England one may witness the process by which some American Indians adopted aspects of Christianity, with a corresponding influence on their deathways. This process did not unfold smoothly in a linear fashion; some New England Algonquians embraced portions of the Christian message earlier than other groups did. Moreover, Christianization did not proceed nearly as quickly as New England’s missionaries hoped. But by the early 18th century, New England was home to several Indian communities whose deathways were indeed syncretic, bearing a significant imprint of Christian beliefs.

Historical archaeology is crucial to assessing the burial practices of the large majority of New England’s native people. If one reads only the writings of missionaries such as John Eliot, one might believe that a significant percentage of New England Algonquians quickly showed interest in Christianity. But archaeological evidence demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of southern New England Indian burials from the period 1620 to 1670 were performed according to a logic that owed nothing to Christianity.

In a typical burial among the Narragansetts, Wampanoags, and Massachusetts, the corpse was smeared with red ochre and was placed into a roughly meter-deep oval or round grave in a tightly flexed posture resembling the fetal position. The corpse, with its hands drawn up near or even in its mouth, was often wrapped in wool blankets or reed matting. It was then ordinarily laid in the grave on its right side, with its head pointing toward the southwest in the direction of “Cautantowwit’s house,” the residence of the benign and munificent god who had taught New England’s Algonquians the secrets of maize agriculture. Once buried, the deceased’s spirit or soul traveled to Cautantowwit’s house, where, according to one English observer, they lived forever, “solacing themselves in odoriferous gardens, fruitful corn fields, [and] green meadows.”14

In the decades from 1620 to 1670, most southern New England Algonquian burials included grave goods. Items were placed either on the body as adornment—as in necklaces, bracelets, and earrings—or in front of the body as it lay on its side, or in a position resembling how the item was used in life, such as a pipe placed between the fingers. Most goods were European; before trade with the newcomers, Algonquian graves were not very richly appointed. Typical grave goods of European origin included glass beads, bottles of colored glass, clay pipes, iron hoes, and occasionally weapons such as guns or swords. There were some items of aboriginal manufacture in the graves: clay vessels, shell beads, and bone tools.

Despite decades of missionary efforts, the vast majority of southern New England Indians rejected Christian burials before 1670. They did not use coffins and they did not place the body into the grave on its back with its legs extended. They did not shroud the body in linen, nor did they gather for prayers to the Christian god. If the burials were untouched by Christian influence, they did owe something to Europeans: the wide range of imported grave goods. These items, however, were buried according to an Algonquian logic. New England Indians considered European items desirable as grave goods because they believed the items to contain manit or spiritual power. Algonquians thought goods had manit when they were especially useful (such as an iron drill for making wampum), or unusual (such as a magnifying glass), or connected with spiritual power (such as a crucifix or a page from the Bible).

By the early 18th century, however, some Indian communities were embracing more and more aspects of Christianity. As they did so, their deathways became more heavily Christianized, while retaining some earlier practices. A good place to witness this process is on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where three generations of Mayhews worked to teach the local Wampanoags about Christianity. In the early 18th century, Experience Mayhew (b. 1673–d. 1758) continued the work that his grandfather, Thomas Mayhew Jr., had begun in 1643. Perhaps even more importantly, Experience Mayhew was joined by a network of Wampanoag preachers who were equally committed to spreading the message of Christ’s love.

In 1727, Mayhew published Indian Converts, a compendium of biographies of ninety-four pious Christian Wampanoags. These individuals do not represent a cross-section of Wampanoags on Martha’s Vineyard; Mayhew chose them because they exemplified the Christian piety he hoped all of New England’s Indians would one day embody. But by the 1720s the vast majority of the island’s Indians were at least nominally Christian, so the biographies—collected with the help of native preachers—show the direction that Wampanoag spirituality was heading.

Mayhew knew that his Christian readers on both sides of the Atlantic were interested in deathbed scenes, which had long been a staple of pious literature in Europe and North America. He also knew that his readers would be especially curious about the deathbed scenes of pious Indians, since this was a relatively new addition to the venerable genre. He therefore included descriptions of seventy-seven deathbed scenes in Indian Converts. Most of the scenes he described were model deaths; that is, they adhered to the orthodox norm as outlined by two centuries of reformed Protestant writers. The dying Indians were almost universally resigned to their deaths, not questioning God’s will. They accepted their impending departure, and any pain they experienced, as part of God’s plan for them. The dying Wampanoags urged their loved ones to behave well and to continue praying to God. And they looked forward with cautious optimism to meeting Jesus in heaven.

But a surprising number of deathbed scenes in Indian Converts also give evidence of syncretic practices, even among Mayhew’s handpicked sample of pious Wampanoags. Mayhew recorded several deathbed scenes that included supernatural events with no Anglo-American analogue. Indian observers occasionally asserted that they had seen spirits, witnessed inexplicable lights, or heard voices in the vicinity of a loved one’s deathbed. Unlike Anglo-American deathbed scenes, during which the dying person sometimes had a vision, supernatural events were sometimes reported by Indians observing a deathbed scene. This drew on a cultural inheritance in which the Indians of southern New England believed that both the dying and deathbed observers were in a liminal position between this world and the next. Given this liminality, the spirit world more easily than usual broke in upon this world.

Several supernatural deathbed scenes appear in Indian Converts. For example, an observer saw spirits during Abigail Ammapoo’s dying moments in 1710. Ammapoo was attended diligently in her final days by her daughter. Too diligently, thought the mother, who asked her daughter to get some rest. But the young woman would not lie down, opting instead to sit in a chair next to her sleeping mother’s bed. As the daughter became drowsy, she was treated to a spectacular supernatural display: she “suddenly saw a light which seemed brighter than that of noon-day; when looking up, she saw two bright shining persons, standing in white raiment at her mother’s bedside, who, on her sight of them, with the light attending them, immediately disappeared.”15 At other times, deathbed observers heard inexplicable sounds; in one case they “plainly heard a melodious singing in the air, over the house where the [dying] woman lay.”16

The Christian Indians of Martha’s Vineyard thus adopted syncretic deathways in the early 18th century, absorbing many practices of their Euro-American neighbors. But the influence was not reciprocal. No Anglo–New Englanders, so far as we know, buried their dead in flexed positions, or smeared corpses with red ochre, or used clay pipes and hawk’s bells as grave goods. To the extent that hybrid deathways emerged in New England, it occurred among the region’s Indians.

New York

To witness the emergence of syncretic African American deathways, 18th-century New York City provides an ideal setting. It was home to a large number of slaves and free blacks: people of African descent made up between 16 and 20 percent of New York City’s total population in several mid-century censuses. These individuals and their ancestors came from a wide range of African homelands, owing to the Dutch and later English control of the city’s slave importation, and to the trade with Spanish colonies. Whereas the Christianization of New York’s blacks proceeded only fitfully, the result of sporadic missionary activity, Anglicization occurred more rapidly. The city’s African Americans learned the English language, wore English clothes, and, because most of them were bound laborers, took up the artisanal trades of their owners. Their immersion in English material culture was reflected in their deathways.

Like the slaves in Barbados and elsewhere in the Americas, enslaved New Yorkers were largely free to attend to their dying and dead without a great deal of interference from their owners or clergymen. In 1713 Anglican minister John Sharpe complained that people of African descent were “buried in the Common by those of their country and complexion without the office [the Anglican burial liturgy], on the contrary the heathenish rites are performed at the grave by their countrymen.”17 Apparently there were enough Africans of a variety of different ethnic backgrounds that members of each nation could attend to their own dead.

Because ministers and slave owners did not participate in or even pay much attention to African American burials, our understanding of mid-18th-century practices is greatly enhanced by the archaeological excavation of New York’s African Burial Ground, which occurred in the early 1990s. The evidence indicates that New York’s African Americans partook of the broader Anglo-American material culture that surrounded them.

The vast majority of the 419 individuals removed from the African Burial Ground were buried in ways identical to those of their white neighbors. Or, to be more precise, the material remains of the vast majority of the African Burial Ground interments are identical to those of white New Yorkers. Religious rituals rarely leave a trace in the material record, and thus archaeology is unable to shed light on most of the rites that meant a great deal to those who performed and observed them. Still, it is striking that so few of the burials contain African elements such as grave goods.

Of the individuals whose remains were sufficiently well preserved to allow for analysis, 92 percent (352/384) were buried in coffins, 94 percent (393/419) were single interments, 98 percent (367/375) were buried with the head facing west, and 100 percent (269/269) were supine; that is, lying face-up.18 This is precisely how white New Yorkers were buried in the 18th century: coffined (with perhaps a few exceptions for indigents), west-headed, supine, single interments (except for a few mothers with infant children).

There are, however, indisputable material links with African practices for a small minority of the African Burial Ground interments. One of the most evocative of these is the adult woman known as Burial 340. This woman was in her forties or fifties and was almost certainly born in Africa, as indicated by her filed incisors. Her grave goods show how objects of European, American, and African origin could be combined to create distinctively African American mortuary practices. Into her grave, near her pelvis, had been placed an unused, white kaolin clay pipe of British or American manufacture. Both white and black New Yorkers enjoyed smoking tobacco, but only people of African descent placed goods into coffins to be used by the deceased in the afterlife. Even more uniquely African were the beads with which the woman was buried. Around her hips she wore a string of waist beads consisting of seventy glass beads, one amber bead, and seven cowrie shells. Waist beads were a distinctively West African item of adornment, worn underneath a woman’s skirt and thus visible only to her spouse or female bathing partners.19

Whereas waist beads were African objects of daily use, conjuring bundles were reserved for spiritual and supernatural purposes. Called minkisi (singular nkisi) by Kongolese but used elsewhere in Africa and throughout the African diaspora, conjuring bundles were small cloth or fiber bags containing objects with magical or ritual significance. Burial 147 was an old man, fifty-five to sixty-five years old. He was found with four straight pins and fourteen tiny copper-alloy rings—at 11millimeters in diameter, too small to fit on an adult’s fingers—between his upper right arm and his chest. It seems likely that the rings had been contained in some kind of small cloth sack pinned to his burial garment. This array almost exactly matches descriptions of conjuring bundles from Africa.20

Overall, the evidence from the African Burial Ground paints a complicated portrait of black life in 18th-century New York. Most burials partook of Anglo-American material culture, while a small number included African elements. Some graves show evidence both of European and African influences, pointing the way toward the syncretic elements of Afro-Christianity that emerged in the second half of the 18th century. The physical evidence is silent, however, about rituals (either Christian or indigenous West African) and perishable offerings that may have accompanied the burials.

Later in the 18th century, blacks in New York and elsewhere in the Americas incorporated increasing elements of Christianity into their burials. In 1794, New York’s free blacks formed the African Society, a group dedicated to “improving . . . morals” and “promoting a spirit of brotherly love” within their community. The African Society’s founders were Christians, and one of their highest priorities was to “procure a place for . . . the interment of people of color.”21 This mirrored the creation of benevolent societies in several mainland American cities in the last decades of the 18th century. The men who formed these urban benevolent societies did not forget their African roots; their pride in their heritage was reflected in the way most of the groups were called “African.” But these were also committed Christians whose deathways partook of the material and spiritual aspects of Christianity. Their mortuary practices included somber processions through the city streets, coffins covered with palls, graveside prayers to the Christian god, and, for those who could afford them, gravestones inscribed with conventional Christian epitaphs. Their embrace of this religion prefigured the broader spread of Christianity in the 19th century on the plantations of Barbados and the other West Indian islands, as well as in the southern United States.


The history of death in colonial North America and the Caribbean is the history of cross-cultural encounters. In the first phase of those interactions, Indians, Africans, and Europeans met and were curious about one another’s deathways. They witnessed practices that were unfamiliar, but they were also struck by deep parallels in corpse preparation, burial, and mourning. As they learned more about one another’s mortuary practices, all groups used that knowledge to communicate across cultural boundaries. They also put their newfound knowledge to use in struggles against their antagonists, by using corpse mutilation to inspire fear or employing deathways in their efforts to change the others’ religious practices.

Over time, these first encounters gave way to a grudging acceptance of the presence of the others. Colonial North America came to be a space inhabited by American Indians and the descendants of Europeans and Africans. As new American identities were formed, syncretism, or the blending of cultures, marked the deathways of the hemisphere’s residents. But syncretism did not mark the deathways of all groups equally; it was diagnostic of power. European mortuary practices changed only a little in the Americas, more as the result of environmental conditions such as an abundance of land for burials and of trees for coffins than as the result of interactions with Indians and Africans. The latter groups, by contrast, witnessed more dramatic changes in their deathways, at first as the result of Euro-American trade goods and material culture, and later as some Indians and African Americans embraced aspects of Christianity.

Discussion of the Literature

Death studies emerged as a distinct field of scholarly inquiry in the 1970s. From the beginning the field was animated at least in part by presentist concerns. Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963) had, by the 1970s, led to a thorough critique of the funeral industry and the “high cost of dying.” At the same time, the public was also concerned about the increasing “medicalization” of death. Employing the social-history methods then current, pioneering historians such as Philippe Ariès, Pierre Chaunu, and David Stannard contrasted the mortuary practices of the past—which they claimed to be simple and community oriented—with the allegedly bloated, overpriced, individualistic rituals of the late 20th century.22 They also argued that past societies had been in touch with the reality of death, as compared unfavorably to the supposed “denial of death” in the modern West. More recent works have moved away from this original orientation, choosing instead to take the past more on its own terms.

The literature on death in colonial North America generally does not focus on the interactions among all three of the major groups in the region: Indians, Africans, and Europeans. Rather, most works focus on one or two of them. This discussion, therefore, looks at each of those groups in turn.

Scholarship on American Indian deathways focuses on changes caused by European colonization. Authors disagree about how quickly natives adopted European material culture into mortuary practices and whether these goods represent evolving beliefs or simply an extension of older beliefs. James Axtell, for example, argued that Indian burial practices demonstrate resistance to colonization. He claimed that native burials changed little after European contact and that the changes that did occur were incorporated smoothly into traditional Indian belief systems. He viewed the Algonquian adoption of supine burials (lying on the back) instead of traditional sideways-facing, flexed burials as a “superficial accommodation” to European norms rather than a significant change in beliefs.23 Other scholars have followed Axtell’s lead.24 More recent scholarship, however, challenges this unswerving emphasis on resistance. Patricia Rubertone offers a complicated story of continuity and change by examining a Narragansett burial ground in conjunction with the writings of the Puritan Roger Williams.25 Erik R. Seeman uses deathways to understand the encounter between French Jesuits and Huron-Wendats in present-day Ontario.26 In contrast to the “superficial accommodation” thesis, Seeman takes seriously the mortuary practices of Christian Wendats, seeing their supine burials with grave goods as a complex hybrid of Wendat and European practices.

For decades, scholars have searched for “Africanisms” in the deathways of African Americans to demonstrate the continuation of West African culture among slaves and their descendants. Some scholars, however, have not been as careful in their search for Africanisms as would be ideal. As Merrick Posnansky points out, historians of the African diaspora have sometimes made unwarranted generalizations about West African deathways, when in fact diversity was the norm. Linking a particular African American practice to West Africa, therefore, can be a difficult process.27 There are, however, numerous careful studies of African deathways in the Americas. Jerome Handler and Frederick Lange conducted a pioneering archaeological study of Newton Plantation in Barbados. They demonstrate how combining a careful excavation with an immersion in available historical sources can lead to convincing connections between African and African American culture.28 Vincent Brown is similarly careful not to oversimplify connections between Africa and Jamaica. He offers the valuable concept of “mortuary politics,” which is applicable to any time and place, and which describes how people use deathways to achieve their desired goals.29

Regarding Euro-Americans, scholars were interested in colonial American gravestones and epitaphs long before death studies became a legitimate academic field in the 1970s. But it was only with the publication of David Stannard’s The Puritan Way of Death in 1977 that the deathways of Euro-Americans received the treatment they deserved. Stannard focuses on the Puritan fear of death, arguing that Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination made it impossible for Puritans to know whether they were going to heaven or hell. This, according to Stannard, made anxiety about one’s future state ubiquitous among Puritans. Subsequent scholarship has questioned whether Puritans were indeed as anxious as would be predicted by predestinarian theory.30 More recently, Steven Bullock and Sheila McIntyre demonstrate that there is still much to be written about New England deathways. The practice of giving commemorative gloves at funerals in the 18th century was tied to relations between elites and non-elites; the practice diminished at the end of the century, when those connections loosened.31

Primary Sources

Death in colonial North America is an excellent topic to research because of the large number of primary sources available. In addition to traditional literary sources such as letters, diaries, and ethnographies, researchers may examine art, music, gravestones, human remains, and mortuary goods such as coffin hardware and mourning rings.

Scholars using literary sources often start with ethnographies. These accounts, penned by Europeans and Euro-Americans about Indians and people of African descent, are shaped by the biases of the men—usually missionaries—who wrote them. Still they offer valuable insights about people who did not leave many written records of their own. Some of the most readily available include the seventy-three volumes of the Jesuit Relations and Roger Williams’s A Key into the Language of America (1643).

Another category of literary sources is ministerial literature, which reveals orthodox models for deathbed scenes, burials, and mourning. New England’s clergymen wrote dozens of guides to proper dying and descriptions of good deaths. But to learn how laypeople actually died, diaries are an invaluable source. A two-volume published edition makes Samuel Sewall’s one of the easiest to access, but this source should be complemented with the numerous manuscript lay diaries found in archives across New England.

To broaden the range of people under investigation, including nonliterate or semiliterate Euro-Americans, material culture must be used. Gravestones, though highly conventional in form, offer insights into how ordinary Euro-Americans thought about death. Many collections of epitaphs exist, especially for New England, and newer online resources such as Find A Grave make searching for individual gravestones easier than ever.

To learn about the deathways of non-Europeans, archaeological sources are crucial. For African Americans, excavations at Newton Plantation in Barbados and the African Burial Ground in Manhattan reveal more than literary sources ever could. For American Indians, ethical concerns about disturbing graves and legal concerns embodied in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 have made archaeology problematic, except in the limited cases of salvage excavations undertaken with the consent of the descent community. Still, important insights may be gleaned from older works if the reader deems this ethically viable. One of the best, based on excavations from the 1940s, is Kenneth E. Kidd’s “The Excavation and Historical Identification of a Huron Ossuary,” published in American Antiquity 18.4 (April 1953): 359–379.

Further Reading

Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

    Bullock, Steven C., and Sheila McIntyre. “The Handsome Tokens of a Funeral: Glove-Giving and the Large Funeral in Eighteenth-Century New England.” William and Mary Quarterly 69.2 (April 2012): 305–346.Find this resource:

      Friend, Craig Thompson, and Lorri Glover, eds. Death and the American South. Cambridge Studies on the American South. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

        Geddes, Gordon E. Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England. Studies in American History and Culture 28. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981.Find this resource:

          Handler, Jerome S., and Frederick W. Lange. Plantation Slavery in Barbados: An Archaeological and Historical Investigation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

            Isenberg, Nancy, and Andrew Burstein, eds. Mortal Remains: Death in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.Find this resource:

              McNeill, J. R. Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914. New Approaches to the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. Social Foundations of Aesthetic Forms. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                  Rubertone, Patricia E. Grave Undertakings: An Archaeology of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                    Seeman, Erik R. Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                      Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study of Religion, Culture, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.Find this resource:


                        (1.) Philip L. Barbour, ed., The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631), Vol. 1 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 225.

                        (2.) George Percy, “‘A Trewe Relacyon’: Virginia from 1609–1612,” Tyler’s Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine 3, no. 4 (1922), 263.

                        (3.) J. Frederick Fausz, “An ‘Abundance of Blood Shed on Both Sides’: England’s First Indian War, 1609–1614,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98, no. 1 (January 1990), 3–56, especially 4 (“holy war”).

                        (4.) Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus; or, Purchas His Pilgrimes, Vol. 19 (Glasgow: MacLehose, 1906), 229.

                        (5.) Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975), 100.

                        (6.) Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Vol. 10, Hurons: 1636 (Cleveland, OH: Burrows, 1897), 293 (“admired”), 279 (“magnificent”); and Allan Greer, ed., The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America (Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2000), 66 (“heartening”).

                        (7.) Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations, Vol. 10, 293.

                        (8.) Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations, Vol. 10, 301.

                        (9.) Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations, Vol. 30, Hurons, Lower Canada: 1646–1647 (Cleveland, OH: Burrows, 1898), 27–31.

                        (10.) Jerome S. Handler and Frederick W. Lange, Plantation Slavery in Barbados: An Archaeological and Historical Investigation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 22, 24.

                        (11.) Jerome S. Handler, “A Prone Burial from a Plantation Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies: Possible Evidence for an African-Type Witch or Other Negatively Viewed Person,” Historical Archaeology 30, no. 3 (1996), 76–86.

                        (12.) Handler and Lange, Plantation Slavery in Barbardos, 166.

                        (13.) Jerome S. Handler, “An African-Type Healer/Diviner and His Grave Goods: A Burial from a Plantation Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 1, no. 2 (June 1997), 91–130.

                        (14.) William Wood, New Englands Prospect (London: T. Cotes, 1634), 104.

                        (15.) Experience Mayhew, Indian Converts; or, Some Account of the Lives and Dying Speeches of a Considerable Number of the Christianized Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, in New-England (London, 1727), 150.

                        (16.) Mayhew, Indian Converts, 201.

                        (17.) Rev. John Sharpe, “‘Proposals for Erecting a School, Library and Chapel at New York,’ 1712–13,” Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1880: Revolutionary and Miscellaneous Papers 3 (1881), 355.

                        (18.) Warren R. Perry, Jean Howson, and Barbara A. Bianco, eds., New York African Burial Ground: Archaeology Final Report, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Howard University, 2006), 134–144.

                        (19.) Perry, Howson, and Bianco, eds., New York African Burial Ground, Vol. 1, 387, 403, 410.

                        (20.) Perry, Howson, and Bianco, eds., New York African Burial Ground, Vol. 1, 432–433.

                        (21.) Quoted in Edna Greene Medford, ed., The New York African Burial Ground: History Final Report (Washington, DC: Howard University, 2004), 214.

                        (22.) Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, Helen Weaver, trans. (New York: Knopf, 1981); Pierre Chaunu, La mort à Paris: 16e, 17e et 18e siècles (Paris: Fayard, 1978); and David E. Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death: A Study of Religion, Culture, and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

                        (23.) James Axtell, “Last Rights: The Acculturation of Native Funerals in Colonial North America,” in Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 110–128.

                        (24.) Constance A. Crosby, “From Myth to History, or Why King Philip’s Ghost Walks Abroad,” in Mark P. Leone and Parker B. Potter Jr., eds., The Recovery of Meaning: Historical Archaeology in the Eastern United States (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 183–209; and Christina J. Hodge, “Faith and Practice at an Early-Eighteenth-Century Wampanoag Burial Ground: The Waldo Farm Site in Dartmouth, Massachusetts,” Historical Archaeology 39, no. 4 (2005), 73–94.

                        (25.) Patricia E. Rubertone, Grave Undertakings: An Archaeology of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

                        (26.) Erik R. Seeman, The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). See also Seeman, Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

                        (27.) Merrick Posnansky, “West Africanist Reflections on African-American Archaeology,” in Theresa A. Singleton, ed., “I, Too, Am America”: Archaeological Studies of African-American Life (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 21–37.

                        (28.) Jerome S. Handler and Frederick W. Lange, Plantation Slavery in Barbados: An Archaeological and Historical Investigation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).

                        (29.) Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

                        (30.) Erik R. Seeman, Pious Persuasions: Laity and Clergy in Eighteenth-Century New England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), chapter 2.

                        (31.) Steven C. Bullock and Sheila McIntyre, “The Handsome Tokens of a Funeral: Glove-Giving and the Large Funeral in Eighteenth-Century New England,” William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 2 (April 2012), 305–346.