Local author Missy Wolfe uncovers Greenwich’s Colonial past

“History through time is like playing telephone.”

So says town author Missy Wolfe, whose recent work Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1655 has uncovered many hidden truths about Greenwich’s Colonial past.

In documenting the traumatic life of Elizabeth Winthrop, one of America’s earliest founders, Ms. Wolfe’s nonfiction book describes in detail the clashing of three very different cultures living along the Long Island shore in the 17th Century: the Puritan English, the merchant Dutch and the American Indian Munsees who despised the Europeans’ presence.

Ms. Wolfe told the Post that her interest in local history began in middle school when she caught wind of a major American Indian massacre that was said to have taken place in Cos Cob. About seven years ago, Ms. Wolfe pursued her interest in the event but found that the Greenwich Historical Society and other local sources had virtually no information about it.

Thirsty for the facts, Ms. Wolfe said she began conducting research with original source documents from the time period and quickly discovered that some of the town’s Colonial history had been “twisted out of recognition.”

One thing Ms. Wolfe said she discovered to be a horrifying reality, however, was the massacre in Cos Cob that ultimately left between 500 and 700 American Indians burned to death at the hands of the Dutch. The period of time in which the massacre took place is known as Kieft’s War, named after William Kieft, then director-general of New Netherland, which spanned everything from Delaware to Maine.

Calling him a man who “terribly mismanaged” the American Indians, whom the Dutch relied upon for their fur trade, Ms. Wolfe said Mr. Kieft so deeply damaged them that a string of back-and-forth killings took place between the two groups. Those farther away from Fort Amsterdam and Mr. Kieft, living on what is now the tip of Manhattan, were truly disturbed by the director’s actions but had no soldiers to back them up, Ms. Wolfe said. And before long, Mr. Kieft decided to end the cycles of retaliatory murders and solve the problem through “massive genocide,” she said.

At the time, the English had claimed a portion of lower Fairfield County as part of their New England territory and Mr. Kieft decided to defend the border between New Netherland and New England, which today is the border between Greenwich and Stamford. The Dutch launched several forays from Old Greenwich and in the midst of their attacks encountered an American Indian trader who led them to a great mass of other American Indians in what is now Cos Cob. In a fashion similar to the infamous Mystic Massacre, the Dutch burned hundreds of American Indians all in one evening, Ms. Wolfe said.

“This is not historical drama or historical fiction,” Ms. Wolfe said. “The true story is more unbelievable than any fiction.”

And although the massacre is just one part of the era’s local history and of what Ms. Wolfe covers in Insubordinate Spirit, it is an example of a critical event that no one truly uncovered until she began digging for the facts.

Ms. Wolfe said she wants her readers to find a new appreciation for Connecticut’s true and “shocking” history and hopes to provide recognition for the brutality suffered by the American Indians who were here for 10,000 years and whom most people have never heard of. Additionally, Ms. Wolfe said, she hopes readers will appreciate the “story of the amazing Elizabeth Winthrop and what she personally went through, and what came out of her adversity.”

According to Ms. Wolfe, Ms. Winthrop was originally an English Puritan and came to America to be with her husband, Henry, whom she had married without the consent of her family and who coincidentally was killed his first day in the new country. Ms. Winthrop then married her second husband, Robert Feake, who eventually went insane and left his family to receive outside care.

In 1643, Ms. Winthrop met William Hallett, and though the couple sought to be married, the Puritans would now allow her to divorce Mr. Feake. The couple was living in Dutch territory at the time, however, and were able to marry, though she faced the death sentence, among other forms of persecution, from her own native Englishmen. Leaving Massachusetts Bay Colony, where Ms. Winthrop’s own uncle, John, was governor, she and Mr. Hallett found safety and settled on the border between New England and New Netherland. As a result of jurisdiction battles in the area, however, Ms. Wolfe said, Ms. Winthrop became a “political pawn” between New Haven Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony and narrowly survived the collision of the area’s three conflicting cultures.

Later, as a result of what Ms. Winthrop’s own English Puritans had done to her, she and Mr. Hallett became central figures in the rejection of Puritanism and founded Quakerism on Long Island, Ms. Wolfe said. The Quaker movement caught on “like wildfire” and made Ms. Winthrop one of the first true Americans, she added.

Ms. Winthrop “didn’t let adversity get her down,” the author said. Instead, she backed what she believed to be a better religion and “gambled on her fairly powerful relatives” because she knew her ideas were better.

“Quintessentially, the American personality is to say, ‘If the logic doesn’t hold up, let’s go on to better logic,’” Ms. Wolfe said, adding that Ms. Winthrop “has been an unrecognized proponent of the American personality.

With the completion of Insubordinate Spirit behind her, Ms. Wolfe said, she has been sad to end the research phase of her book. “This was like turning the pages of an incredible story that happens to be true” and the true history revealed is “as exciting as any novel,” she said. “I think this history is a lot more exciting than most histories, which are akin to eating your vegetables,” she added with a laugh.

Though Ms. Wolfe is a fine and decorative arts appraiser by day, she said an appraisal is “all research and understanding its history,” which is where her investigative skills came in handy while conducting research for the book.

Ultimately, Ms. Wolfe said, she hopes Insubordinate Spirit will prompt readers to explore Connecticut’s tumultuous history and delve further into what the past was truly like.

 

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