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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

WHITE GUILT PART 1: What's in a Name?

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

A Personal Quest Through Family History

[Originally written in 1997, here with recent edits]

On a warm April day in 1986, my father and I were exploring a small rural graveyard in Clinton Corners, NY, adjacent to an old Quaker Meeting House in the Hudson Valley. We were on the lookout for family gravestones which were rumored to be found there. Catching sight of the inscription on one of the gravestones, I did a double take. The name on the headstone was my own.

“Sarah Underhill, 1824-1852,” the marker read. Other Underhill graves surrounded it, and as we browsed through them, reading the names and calculating the lifespans, the shock of that first coincidence faded. Further on, I came across a much more auspicious omen, the record of a Jacob Underhill who had lived to a ripe old age [1800-1886.] The occasion for my father’s visit that day was the first birthday of my son, Jacob. We go for Old Testament names in my family, and have for quite awhile.

Since moving to the Hudson Valley in 1978, the call of coincidence keeps leading me back to the history of my not-so-distant ancestors. In 1995, I returned to Clinton Corners with another family group on a tour of Underhill-related sites. We saw the hidden closet-like space in the Webster House in Clinton Corners where escaped slaves were kept safe as a stop on the Underground Railroad, kindly shown to us by the Webster family, the house’s current owners. After that I picked up a copy of a book, or booklet, written by another direct ancestor of mine, a Captain John Underhill, in 1638, when he was about thirty years old. “Newes From America”, it’s called, and it is part eye witness account of historic events and part early Chamber of Commerce booster material, urging the reader to come and get in on a good thing in the New World. The author subtitled it “A New and Experimental Discoverie of New England, Containing A True Relation of Their War-like proceedings these two years last past, with a Figure of the Indian Fort or Palizado.” He also throws in a few impassioned sermons on his faith, including an account of the ecstatic gratitude of two young female colonists on their release from captivity by the Pequots, in a hostage trade.

As I read through the small book, with its few stark descriptions of long ago events, my interest in this ancestor of mine increased as did my concern and dismay. I pondered the circumstances which dictated the course of his life. Trying to come to terms with Captain John and what he did, I found myself taking his story personally, trying to imagine motivations and explanations for his behavior. The record he left is not a bland one; it includes some horrific events, including a massacre of 600 Native people that Underhill helped lead during the Pequot War of 1636-1637. Their "Fort or 'Palizado'” was burned to the ground. Three other massacres occurred during Kieft’s War in 1643 near New Amsterdam at the site of the present day town of Pound Ridge, and he played a part in those as well.

As Harry Macy, Jr. mildly points out in his introduction to a 1981 version of “Newes From America”, “…we can assume that [Captain Underhill] found much criticism and misunderstanding…regarding…the conduct of the war… we may experience similar feelings as we read of the slaughter that ensued. As with any narratives from the distant past, one has to try to understand the viewpoints that prevailed at that time.”

Keeping this advice in mind, I tried to assemble a picture of this man, gleaning hints from his written account. Was he just another “Dead White Male”, praised by History while his less honorable deeds are ignored or glorified? In spite of myself a stubborn and irrational rush of tribal family loyalty, visceral in onset, had me trying to work the angles to, if not vindicate him, at least understand him. His military training in Holland and experience in “Ireland and Cadiz”, were undertaken during the “jihad” of that era of European history, the holy wars between Catholics and Protestants in which both sides were indoctrinated to obliterate the other as heretic down to the last babe in arms. This was the modus operandi brought to bear against the fort full of sleeping Pequots on that summer night in 1637.

The day after the fort was burned, the colonists’ Mohican allies came to congratulate them on their victory and expressed their astonishment at the brutality of the European method. They are quoted in the account as saying “It is naught! [ i.e. wicked] …because it is too furious, and slays too many men.”

Allegedly, at the very brink of initiating the attack, Underhill was quoted as saying, “Are we really going to do this?”, or words to that effect, to which a companion replied “Why came we here else?” Captain John later denied, in writing, that this conversation ever took place. But he also writes that the dread sound of the predawn volley “bred in them [the Pequot] such a terror that they broke forth into a most doleful cry. If God had not fitted their hearts for the service, this cry would have bred in our men a commiseration toward the Indians. But every Englishman, being bereft of pity, fell upon the work without compassion.”

It’s impossible to know what was going through John Underhill’s mind on that far off night in Connecticut, but as I projected my own biases into the scenario, I fastened onto this slim clue that his military resolve might have faltered, if only briefly, in the knowledge that something horrible was about to be done, when he asked "Are we to do this now?" Putting aside these unanswerable questions, I realize that I need not try to explain away my ancestor’s actions. They were predictable given his background, training, and the time he lived in.

Leaving the painful subject of his military career, this Captain John was known to be more open to other people’s views than many of his Puritan compatriots. He was strongly moved by the dissident views of Anne Hutchinson, a minister who stirred up her fellow colonists in Boston with new ideas to such an extent that she was eventually banned from that fair city. Underhill was one of her supporters and was also disinvited from the Massachusetts Bay area for a time, an official banishment which included having his gun confiscated. He later publicly and abjectly recanted and got his privileges back again. Without the protection of living within the colony, Hutchinson and her family ended up being the victims of a massacre themselves at the hands of Natives in the lead up to Kieft’s War. Underhill’s involvement with the general butchery happened after she and her family were killed.

We will never know how Captain John felt about the circumstances of Anne Hutchinson’s death. Her Puritan detractors could smugly note that God had punished her appropriately for her heresy.

But let's change the subject, shall we? I first came to the Hudson Valley to crew on the sailboat “Clearwater”, a replica of the cargo sloops that sailed by the lovely promontory of Croton Point during the 18th and 19th centuries. Brainchild of folksinger and pacifist Pete Seeger, “Clearwater” holds an annual music festival at Croton Point Park, sometimes using the Underhill wine cellars, relics of a long gone enterprise there, as walk-in refrigerators. Driving to my first Clearwater Revival Festival in 1985, and taking the “Underhill Avenue” exit [ the name has since been changed to “Croton Point Avenue”], I got my first inkling that I had chanced upon another, happier personal connection with the past. The Underhill family owned Croton Point for almost a century and had a thriving orchard, vineyard, farm and brickyard there.

To quote Mr. Macy again, “We of the 20th century can only wonder what our descendants…will think of us when they try to understand our accounts of this troubled age.” [The 21st century so far is only reinforcing this observation.- Ed. Note] But while living the most recent chapters of the story, I am trying to make sense of the lessons of the earlier tale. However many sides of Captain John Underhill one may examine or wish to forget, for one thing I am truly grateful: that he was a literate man who left an account of his life for future generations to discover. His story may have helped to sufficiently horrify succeeding generations of Underhills, starting with his grandson Abraham, into leading lives of tolerance and pacifism as members of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers].

Following their guiding principles, they assisted escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad to freedom. When my great-great-grandfather, Alfred A. Underhill was growing up in the Clinton Corners farmhouse which contained the secret "Underground Railroad" room, he wrote in his diary of visiting his relatives at Croton Point and of sailing on the Hudson with the uncles and cousins who lived there. Late in life he moved his family to California, and the next three generations, including myself, were born in the west. Chance has brought me back to the Underhill stomping grounds, where I’m happy to report that the precious legacy of pacifism and tolerance, beleagered as it may be and born of a harsh and bloody history, still abides.

Underhill Burying Ground, Oyster Bay, Long Island

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